Tattoo baptisms

The reality of my line of work is that when students come up to me and say, “Miss, I have something to tell you,” I’ve learned brace myself; typically that phrase is followed by some sort of confession or a pregnancy announcement. But when Lisa walked into my classroom and said those words to me last year, she didn’t seem upset or panicked (as is usual with the teenage pregnancy announcement shtick) so I took a deep breath and tried to shake some of the tension out of my shoulders that had instantly accumulated there.

“What’s up?” I asked as I shuffled papers around on my desk, failing miserably at being non-chalant.

“Uhm, maybe I’ll tell you later. You look busy.”

I didn’t protest and instead tried to take a deep breath and blow it off. Inevitably “DSS happened” and I got swept away with my day teaching, completely forgetting about Lisa and the emotional cliff she had left me hanging on.

After lunch, she sauntered into my classroom for senior English. Before I could say anything, she turned her back to me and swept her hair to the side. As she did so, she revealed a tattoo reaching down her upper spine that read God is love and only love.

“Whaaaaaat?! Lis, I love it!” I stammered, allowing my pulse to slow (incredibly relieved that the thing she was dying to tell me about that morning was just a tattoo).

“You like it?” She launched into a story about how she had been on the verge of making a stupid decision after getting into a fight with her mom over the weekend. “Instead of smoking weed or something though, I decided to go for a “solo” like we learned to do at the conference in Alaska. I grabbed my coat and walked for a few hours while I thought about everything I’ve learned about God at DSS and on our trip— you know, how He’s always there for us… how He loves us… all of that. As I kept walking, I kept thinking about Eric’s words in Port Alsworth: “God is love and only love”. Before I knew it, I was standing outside a tattoo parlor. I decided I never wanted to forget those words, so I got them inked on my back; I want to live my life knowing that God loves me.”

By this point, the bell to begin class had rung and I had an audience of senior girls staring at me like I had lost my mind as I stood next to Lisa with my hands cupped over my mouth and tears running down my cheeks.

“Oh Lis. That’s beautiful. And such a big commitment for someone who wasn’t all that sure about God (let alone, Jesus) at the beginning of this school year.”

“I know, Miss. But I wanted to write it on my heart— I want knowing God’s character to change everything I do.”

By this point, I was in full on water-works mode. “Do you guys know what a baptism is?” I choked out, turning to the rest of my class. (I figured we were studying Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters, so this conversation was mildly pertinent to the rest of my girls for academic reasons.)

“Isn’t it when someone gets dunked in water?” One of my girls pipped up.

“Usually… Does anyone know why people get baptized?” I pressed, doing my best to dry my happy/ sappy tears and put on my teacher hat.

*Crickets*

“Baptism is a public declaration of a person’s faith in Jesus. When someone gets baptized they’re saying to the world that they want to follow Jesus and live their life in a changed way because of the way He has changed them.”

I glanced around the room and met a bunch of empty, unimpressed stares before catching Lisa’s eye.

“Lis, correct me if I’m wrong… but I think that’s what you did this weekend. I think you got a Street School style baptism…?”

She smiled slyly, nodded, and took her seat.

~ ~ ~

My tears that day (as strange as they must have seemed to the rest of my students) were all joy, enhanced by the knowledge that mere months before Lis made the conscious decision to declare her love for the Lord, she doubted His existence, His goodness, His love for her (or anyone else for that matter).

Today, I sat in a similar posture as Lisa had the day before she brushed her hair to the side and revealed her new ink. With my arm extended, I chose to have someone etch Truth into me— similar to the way the body of Christ, my friends and family have done over the last year since our plane disappeared.

IMG_0750It is for freedom – Script by the lovely Katie Brown

“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

Those words from Galatians 5:1 are ones I have spoken to myself often since the evening of December 7th, 2016.

I will never forget the out of body experience that came with being curled on my knees on my kitchen floor, clutching the phone on which my best friend in Alaska had just delivered the news of the disappearance of Scott, Kaitlyn, Zach, Kyle, and our plane. I will never be able to stop seeing myself there, nor can I seem to forget the feeling of all of my breath leaving my body as my head was plunged back under the icy waters of grief, not even six months after Kevin and Geno’s deaths. I can still vaguely feel the way my lungs remained contracted for months, unable to fully inhale for fear of breathing in water— my own tears. A very wise friend assured me one afternoon that maybe that season of feeling like I was under water was meant to be a baptism, not the vengeful drowning of me, an “unworthy sinner” by my most Holy God. (Oh how I have kept that wisdom close to my heart.)

The words from Galatians 5:1 are those which I heard the Lord whisper to my spirit upon my first ever flight as pilot-in-command in April of 2016. As I manned the yoke in our Cherokee and screamed, “Oh my God! I’m flying!! I’m flying a plane! Who thought this was a good idea?!” like the spazz I am, I almost audibly felt him calm me: Shhhhhhh, sweet girl. I have set you free so that the freedom of the gospel might be spread to places only planes can go; it is for freedom Christ has set us free.

Those words are the ones which Scott teased me for mercilessly when I said I wanted to get them tattooed on my arm once I solo-ed in the Cherokee for my pilot’s license. In his typical snarky way, He would always extend an interpretation of the verse to include: “do not be yoked again to the slavery of the ground!” where scripture says, “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Pilot jokes… they’re almost as bad as dad jokes… (And oh, Scott had such a knack for both.) 

Those words have been my constant reminder that the Lord has not allowed our loved ones’ deaths and Homecomings to be in vain; rather that their transference into the Heavens has been a means by which the gospel has been spread to the very ends of the earth— the most remote Alaskan villages, the Cambodian countryside, humble living rooms all over the US as Julie’s story has been written and read, and all over the world as the body of Christ has rallied our little Alaskan village in prayer.

Those words are a reminder of my calling in life: to be unashamed of the Freedom I carry within my bones because of what Christ has done on the cross, and to call others into that glorious Freedom.

So today, a day where my own grief and the grief I carry in my heart for my dear friends seems strong enough to suck me back under the icy waters, I chose to take a leaf out of Lisa’s book and baptize myself in Truth:

Even here, even now, the Truth remains that God is love and only love. In the midst of trials and sorrow, anniversaries of deaths, and the reminders of dreams and hopes deferred, my God is a God of freedom.

Christ came that we may be set free– that we might proclaim the beautiful, even if tragic, ways that His coming into world and our lives has changed everything.

Jesus, make our hearts believe.

Broncos2016

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November 28th || Plan A

As a writer, I am constantly having a love affair with words. I write little hearts in the margins of books when I find a sentence that touches something deep in my soul and I’ve been known to cut phrases out of magazines and carry those little shreds of paper in my wallet to meditate on until they deteriorate. I write words and prefixes on my body (some more permanently than others) and I soak them in.

Sometimes the Lord strings the words I hold dear into sentences and stories on this site. But sometimes, He tells me to hold them close to my heart– a little gift just for me, a reminder that He sees me and knows right where I’m at.

~~~

On November 28th, 2015, I went on my first hike with both Abbey and Katie; it was on that day that I came to know these beautiful women on a heart level as we got lost looping our village and poured our souls out to one another, word by word, story by story. img_1592

We covered a lot of (literal and metaphorical) ground that day, and while I remember the jist of the stories told, the only words that stayed strung together in the recesses of my heart were Katie’s incredibly wise trail-ponderings:

 

“You know what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately? 

Jesus dying was God’s ‘Plan A’.

That makes me uncomfortable to think about, ya know? Because I think I’m realizing that means that God’s ‘Plan A’ involves a lot of pain and death and suffering sometimes… But I think that also means His ‘Plan A’ involves a level of love and grace and goodness I can’t even fathom…”

 

~~~

Last year on November 28th, 2016, I sat in my living room in Denver and drafted this blog, typing out Katie’s words for the first time. At the time, as I reflected on her wisdom, I felt a story brewing inside of me. I considered writing about that hike and the way those two beautiful women and their stories have forever impacted my life. But as I tried to spit out words, none of the stories my heart ached to tell felt quite right.

I wrote and deleted a handful of stories from 2016– each of which had taught me a heck of a lot about suffering and the agonizing learning curve associated with joyfully submitting my heart to God’s Plan A. And yet I knew none of those stories were the one I was meant to tell.

So I refrained. I wrote Katie’s words in my journal and this blog post remained a draft– a scattered graveyard of half-finished stories and confusion for another year.

Today, in relative hindsight, I can see that Katie’s words were a gift for me– both when she said them initially and when the Lord brought them back to my mind a year later.

On that year anniversary of our grand hike, the Lord was preparing my heart, not to write, but to soak in the truths discussed on those trails. By bringing Katie’s words back to my mind and allowing me to meditate on the Truth in them, He was preparing me for the story that He was writing for each of us– one that included the news that brought each of us to our knees a week later when we found out that our loved ones’ plane had disappeared on its way to Anchorage.

None of us with our limited, earthly perspective could’ve foreseen that the flight with Katie’s “adoptive” family (Scott, Kaitlyn, & Zach) and Abbey’s fiance (Kyle) would leave Port Alsworth that morning and reach it’s perfect destination in the arms of Christ, rather than Merrill Field where we thought it would land.

In all honesty, even a year later, this story is not the story that I would’ve written for any of us. (Oh the number of times I’ve arrogantly and pridefully thought to myself If only (insert situation here) were different over the last few months– as if I am somehow a better author than the Creator of the Universe…) The words that each of us have strung together over the last year as we have grieved and grappled with the loss of those close to us are not the words that I (in my ever-lasting desire never to be uncomfortable or to endure pain) would have chosen as dialogue for my own or my loved ones’ stories…

Yet, each of those words holds purpose as the Lord is constantly combining them to write a story that will ultimately bring Him more glory than I could ever imagine. Over the course of the last twelve months since the accident, Jesus has graciously allowed His Plan A to unfold before my eyes.

Has my stomach turned inside out at times as I’ve heard and read the words of my dear friend who lost her husband and two littles in that plane crash? Absolutely. Did I bawl my eyes out in Cambodia as I watched her second oldest son proclaim the goodness of God over and over again, even after losing his father and siblings? Oh, the term “ugly cry” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Did I trail run/scream/cry my way down the side of a mountain on July 15th– the day that “should have been” Abbey and Kyle’s wedding day– like a lunatic? You betcha. Do most of Abbey and my phone calls still involve the same tears that her blog illicit from me every time I read her words? Yes.

But through it all I have seen more of Christ’s relentless pursuit of each of my loved ones and His grace in our lives than I ever thought possible.

Since my first November in Alaska, the words of Isaiah 55 have been written into my heart and story through Andrew Peterson’s “The Sower Song”– a constant reminder that  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9, English Standard Version).

The flight plan to Anchorage that I so desperately long to somehow still see fulfilled will forever serve as a reminder to me that our plans are not necessarily God’s plans.

His Plan A is infinitely more grand than mine. His Plan A, while occasionally painful(ly sanctifying), is higher than mine; for surely I (as I said before, with my aversion to pain and death) would never be Just enough to sacrifice my own Son for the salvation of the world. (And in the moments when I find myself on my knees, crying out tears that my heart could easily mistake for blood, I am thankful that I have a Savior who can empathize with me from the Garden of Gethsemane.)

In the searing pain of loss, Jesus has shown me that Katie’s words from November 2015 are exactly true:

This is His plan A.

Jesus dying to lay death in its own grave was and is Plan A.

The events in our lives that leave us at the end of ourselves, begging Christ to come in, nearer to our aching hearts are a part of Plan A.

While there are moments that the truth is incredibly difficult to swallow, it remains Truth.

~~~

In this season, as we celebrate an anniversary of sorts in our friendship and simultaneously draw nearer to the anniversary of the crash, Christ continues to teach each of us that perhaps it’s not (entirely) different stories that our hearts desire, but rather more of Him.

img_1547

“Since then we have a great high priest who passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

(Hebrews 4:14-16)

 

The Great Commission because Bob the Builder can’t be all we’ve got

Our computer teacher at the Denver Street School gave a simple assignment to her students last October: Write a letter to someone who has been a positive influence in your life.

Later that afternoon, she sat in our weekly staff meeting and explained that the majority of her students took the assignment to heart and began to type out letters of gratitude to moms, grandmas, teachers, and coaches almost immediately. But in the corner of the room, James* sat and stared blankly at his computer screen. Vicki observed the situation for ten minutes or so before crouching down next to him and quietly asking why he hadn’t started his letter.

“Miss, I can’t think of anyone that’s been a positive influence in my life.”

Gut punch.

As she told us this, I took a moment to evaluate the life of this 17 year old boy I was just getting to know.

He was oldest child of a single mother with a dad who took off well over a decade ago. He was a hard worker with an even harder edge to him, but a smile and sense of humor that could make even the crankiest DSS student laugh. He was the same young man that had shown up to my class a month earlier on crutches after having been shot in the leg over the weekend. He wasn’t a gang banger; he was shot while trying to sell his Playstation 4 so he could buy new school clothes for his little sister and himself.

Tears caught in the back of my throat as Vicki continued on.

“I pressed him,” she said. “‘Surely there’s someone who has been a good influence in your life.'”

“Miss, really. I can’t think of anyone…”

“I encouraged him to dig deep, to think of someone who has inspired him to be the kind of man he wanted to be, and I walked away to give him space to think. A few minutes later he started typing, so I left him to it for the rest of class. At the end of the period, my heart broke as I stood behind him and read his letter over his shoulder– his letter to the most influential man in his life began:

Dear Bob the Builder,

Thank you for teaching me how to be a hard worker when my dad wasn’t around to teach me what it means to be a man.”

It’s been a year since James wrote that letter; I know Vicki read the rest of it to us in our staff meeting, but that devastating first line is burned into my heart and mind for one reason:

The most influential, positive role model one of my students has is a fictional cartoon character created for toddlers.

Before you continue reading this, I want you to take a moment– let the gravity of that sink in.

Where are the strong men in his life? The valiant heroes? The patient, loving father figures? The mentors? The invested disciple makers? Where are they and why haven’t they shown up for so many of my students?

I don’t know. And neither do they.

What I do know is that the absence of Christ-loving, positive role-models in my students’ lives likely explains another tragic phenomenon we’ve come up against in the last few years at the Street School — the headline phenomenon. It’s the other gut punch I’ve written about experiencing on a horrifyingly regular basis when familiar faces show up in my newsfeed or my inbox with a news headline attached to them.

5 killed in Adams County homicide

Man arrested for attempted murder of police officer

Father arrested after death of 3 month old daughter

Aurora Police investigate rush hour shooting that leaves 1 dead

As my staff and I returned to our students after our fall break last week, I was reminded that the week away from DSS that was so refreshing and full of adventure for me, was full of bad decisions, abuse, neglect, and struggle for my students. For many of them, the Street School is the safest place they have in their lives. While I’m thankful that DSS can be that refuge for them, that realization simultaneously took me back to the feeling of urgency that I felt in late August– the urgency that overwhelmed me on August 29th as I drove away from the hospital in which one of my former students had just died from a gunshot wound. That afternoon I screamed and cried in traffic while I beat my fists against my steering wheel wondering how we got “here” and I haven’t been able to stop wondering that since.

That urgency for my students, for the teenagers of the world like James who may not have anyone cheering them on, lovingly placing boundaries around them, mentoring, parenting, or discipling them, has me by the throat these days. It’s an urgency that is threatening to kill me and I am begging the world to hear me out, to listen attentively to James’ story as well as to the call of Jesus in The Great Commandment:

“Meanwhile, the eleven disciples were on their way to Galilee, headed for the mountain Jesus had set for their reunion. The moment they saw him they worshiped him. Some, though, held back, not sure about worship, about risking themselves totally.

Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the Threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20, MSG)

Your ministry niche or the burning burden on your heart may not be inner city teenagers; it may be coworkers who don’t know the Lord or social justice for the sojourner. Whatever the urgent burden on your heart is, I am begging you with all of the fire-y urgency in my heart to “risk yourself totally”, as The Message puts it, and “go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18, ESV).

And as you personally go, I am also begging you to join me by falling on your knees for my kids, for those in our city (your city) who are lost and needy.

Would you join me in interceding for these students like James? My students are the future of our city and they so desperately need to know the love of Our Heavenly Father; they need to know that He can redeem every moment of pain, neglect, and every poor decision they have ever made. Would you pray for mentors to come alongside my students and support them? And for their advocates and teachers at the Denver Street School who have the joy of doing so everyday?

It truly is our honor to spend our days discipling our students at DSS, but the truth remains that they need more people who love Christ pouring into them. Our world needs bold followers of Christ to shape our culture with Love; our future truly depends on it.

Because I don’t know about you, but I can’t fathom letting another teenage boy make it to the age of 17 and have to say, “Bob the Builder is the most positive influence I have in my life”.


 

{If you are interested in partnering with The Denver Street School and The Hesed Project as we disciple students through our Journey to the High Places Conference this spring, you can do so by visiting our GoFundMe page here.}

 

*Student’s name changed to honor their journey and privacy.

 

Intentional, boring bravery

How did this become my life? I wondered the other day as I sat in standstill traffic on I-70, listening to NPR and staring at the miles of cars and the western, afternoon sun before me. How did I get here? I mean, how did my life go from flying bush planes in the Alaskan wilderness and teaching English in floating villages in Cambodia to this? To being a principal, a disciplinarian? The consistent one in my students’ lives? An afternoon traffic NPR listener? How did I end up in this space where my not so fleeting thoughts consist of mortgages and long-term plans to settle into a city when just a little over a year ago I sobbed at the thought of living in America long-term? How did we get here?

One morning last September as I walked into the quiet school hallway, I nearly audibly heard the Lord tell me that my time in the classroom was coming to an end and that I would be moving into administration. I scoffed at the thought and let out a little laugh. An end? But Lord, I’m just now coming back to teaching… (Full disclosure: I scoffed at the thought for other reasons too. The greatest of these being that never, ever, in a million years did I want to become an administrator. Funny how the Lord, works, eh?)

A week or so later, the theme of “rootedness” began popping up in everything I listened to and read, in every quiet time or moment of mediation I took. I noted this theme in my journal and to a few close girlfriends, but brushed it off as a coincidence, or my own confusion– maybe a combination of both. After all, as one of my favorite songs goes,

“I’ve got dreams that keep me up in the dead of night telling me I wasn’t made for the simple life” (NeedtoBreathe, “Happiness”).

I’ve always been a hungry person. I was made for new, for more, for adventure.

I feel nearest to the heart of God when I’m suspended thousands of feet in the air.

I’m energized by the idea of being able to step into change.

Heck, I once stood on my metaphorical soapbox and shouted to the masses that I don’t think I’m a woman created to pay a mortgage. 

And yet, here I sit, staring at the afternoon sun day after day on my long commute home from work. With each day’s commute, I’m being pushed into this new, foreign season a bit more. One in which I know the Lord is calling me to be a stable, consistent, loving force for my students at DSS. I’m being called to be(come) a woman who keeps showing up in the hard places of my students’ lives at the Street School day after day, potentially year after year… and for some reason that’s more difficult for me than all of the jet lag, language barriers, transition and culture shock in my recent life experience combined.

Slowly, ohhhhh sooooo slowly, I am learning to be fully present here in Denver, where I’ve been re-planted.

I’m learning to give all of myself to the Lord in a place that really isn’t all that exciting or new. Even more slowly I’m realizing that doing so isn’t any less brave than the days where I was called to don my winter gear and hop into a plane to fly a few villages down and help mitigate domestic violence situations or assist with medical emergencies.

As the brilliant and wise Shauna Niequest says in her book Present Over Perfect,

“Sometimes brave looks more like staying when you want to leave, telling the truth when all you want to do is change the subject.

Sometimes obedience means climbing a mountain. Sometimes obedience means staying home. Sometimes brave looks like building something big and shiny. Sometimes it means dismantling a machine that threatened to overshadow much more important things.

We’re addicted to big and sweeping and photo-ready– crossing oceans, changing it all, starting new things, dreams and visions and challenges, marathons and flights and ascending tall peaks.

But the rush to scramble up onto platforms, to cross oceans, to be heard and seen and known sometimes comes at a cost, and sometimes the most beautiful things we do are invisible, unsexy…

Sometimes being brave is being quiet. Being brave is getting off the drug of performance. For me, being brave is trusting that what my God is asking of me, what my family and community is asking from me, is totally different than what our culture says I should do.

Sometimes, brave looks boring, and that’s totally, absolutely, okay” (p. 125-126).

Amen.

Today bravery in my world looks a lot like this view. Bravery means trusting that I’m meant to sit at this desk and tend to transcripts and curriculum in between shepherding my students (read: “hearding my teenage cats”).  IMG_0001

Bravery means trusting that Jesus truly is sovereign, and that He knew what He was doing when He called me out of my little Alaskan wilderness life and back to Denver on a (semi?) permanent basis, just as much as He knew what He was doing when He took me there. Bravery means trusting Jesus to do the work that seems impossible in my students’ hearts. Bravery means believing the resurrection and praying it over my loved ones when they still see it as folly. Bravery means responding in love when I’m cussed out at work, then cut off in rush hour traffic. Bravery means obedience to God in both place and perspective.

To my stay-at-home-momma friends, world-traveler-missionary friends, big-business-tycoon friends, in-the-trenches-judicial-department friends, full-time-ministry friends, Light-bringing-artist friends, and those of you whose vocation or occupation don’t fall into any of those categories– I beg you to look up, beyond this post. 

I’m going to venture to guess that whatever is beyond the screen you’re reading this on is your larger sphere of influence. I simply want to remind you that being there, being a consistent, loving, embodiment of Christ where He put you today is brave. And I applaud you for the ways you are changing the world.

Because in a time where the news headlines are teeming with stories of genocide and mass shootings, the world needs Jesus’ brand of brave Love and Hope– the one which He is working in and through you right where he has planted you for this season.

So press on, brave soul. Brave may feel boring to you today, but even in the mundane, our labors of and for Love are not in vain.

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain” for death has been swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:58, 54)

Like the Lotus flower: When you find yourself standing in a field of sewage…

7 time zones in 3 weeks, sleep deprivation, transition, anger, loss, the roller coaster of grief: I’ve written about it all before, but as a refresher on context, that’s exactly where I was when my feet hit Cambodian soil for the first time in June 2016.  I’ve mentioned before that I was an emotional hurricane, but somehow that phrase still seems to fall short when I try to explain where I was at mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually when I boarded my plane leaving Denver last June. I’d considered backing out of the trip last minute. I tried to keep my little hurricane heart in Colorado, but the Lord scooted me onto a plane, despite my best intentions.

I was so broken and exhausted by my own inner turmoil leaving for my month abroad last year that I slept the entire 20 hours worth of flights from Denver to Siem Reap and a good 10 to 12 hours worth of layovers in between. When we finally made it to our hotel in Cambodia, I slept for another 7 hours. For those of you that are as bad at math as I am, that’s roughly 40/48 hours unconscious to the world. Like I said, not exactly the healthiest I’ve ever been…

Our first few days (weeks?) in Southeast Asia, my head was reeling.

The traffic. The pollution. The incessant noise– both in the streets and in the hotel rooms that I shared with my students. I was trapped in my own bitter inner monologue with the Lord and whenever I managed to get outside of my own brain for a moment, I flipped into sensory overload and wanted nothing more than to climb deep inside myself to find silence. But the deep inner silence I was so used to finding with the Lord was no where to be found.

Restlessness became my constant companion and the things that I usually did to process emotional upheavel (ie. running and writing) were next to impossible given the insane schedule (or lack there of…) I was keeping with my youth group kids. With my ability to find quiet refuge inside myself gone, time with the Lord was my only hope at peace and quiet. But to be honest? I saw Him as the cause of so much of my pain, and as such, running to Him didn’t have the appeal it usually did.

As I wrestled with/ against God/ myself while traveling throughout Cambodia last summer, the combination of the magnificent sights and temples, the brokenness and poverty in the country, and the whirlwind adventure of it all, overwhelmed me. As did the smell of durian and fish that wafted through the oppressive 100º heat/ 80% humidity combo everywhere we went. (Woof. I hope to God I’ll get the memory of that smell out of my mind someday…) I saw the Lord do glorious things and met kindred spirits on the other side of the earth that summer, but oh was I on sensory overload 25/7.

One of my most vivid memories of that season is simply of me laying in bed one night texting my best friend back in the States saying something to the tune of:

“I love it here, but my heart hurts and my head is spinning and I feel like my nerves are on the outside of my body. Everything, everyone I interact with touches them.  I’m tired and I feel raw.”

~~~

By the grace of God, my return to Cambodia this summer felt different, even though so many of my life’s circumstances and the questions I was asking the Lord before and during the trip were similar.

After a year of wrestling with the Lord and allowing Him to do some major surgery on my heart, mind, and body, I finally felt like my nerves were safely tucked back where they belonged– protected by layers of well fought for muscle.

On this year’s trip the sting of loss was still present as our team spent the 6 month anniversary of the plane crash that took our loved ones Home on Cambodian soil. Just like last year (and any youth missions trip, really) there were still many tears shed and many late night heart-to-hearts had. Many of the students I led were returning team members; although thankfully they’ve matured a bit and no one made me suffer through a rousing rendition of “99 Bottles of Root Beer on the Wall” this year… Praise Ye the Lord.

86762780-D4B1-495E-9F64-9D5449290062.JPGThe Cambodian traffic structure (or significant lack there of) still blew my mind this year as I watched motos with boxes stacked 5-high zip in and out of traffic, evading trucks with live chickens hanging upside down from the sides of their beds headed to market. The smell of durian still permeated the night markets’ air, and I watched yet again as one of my teenage boys teased a live crocodile with his GoPro. (Boys will be boys and I’m sure I’ll have more grey hair because of them.)

Each of these familiarities were gifts in their own quirky ways as I returned to the country that had captured my heart so deeply last summer. And yet, the Lord brought about His deepest mercy this summer to me in an unfamiliar and unexpected way.

Everyday and everywhere we drove in Cambodia there were Lotus flowers growing in the muddy ditches and fields on the sides of the roads. I realize it’s a weird thing to say, but the Lotus is my second favorite flower and somehow the Lord used it to speak tremendous grace over my mildly-reeling heart this June.

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Photo credit: Evan Wardell 

The Lotus is a flower marked by resiliency and its ability to grow into something breathtakingly beautiful out of some of the most murky, disgusting water on earth. Once the flower emerges from the darkness and begins to bloom, it does so slowly, opening one petal at a time until the entire flower is open to the world.

I love these flowers so much that I had a little chalkboard in my classroom last year that read, “Just like the Lotus flower…” as a reminder to my students and myself to be patient throughout the process of growth and the opening of themselves that would happen within my classroom walls.

After hearing me talk about that chalkboard and “Oooo” and “Ahhhh” over the flowers all trip long, I walked out of a rest station to find my youth group students in a swampy field snapping pictures of the giant flowers growing out back for me. As I walked out to meet them, my Chacos began to sink into the mud and I noticed a particular smell. I turned to say something to my co-leader and caught sight of pipes running from the back of the building where the restrooms were into the swampy field we were all standing in.

A field of sewage.

I was standing in a literal field of crap, watching my students take photos of the most beautiful flowers I’d ever seen in my life. (If that juxtaposition isn’t some kind of metaphor for what the Lord is doing in my life in this season, I don’t know what is…)

I instantly doubled over laughing and asked the kids if they wanted me to give them the bad news now or wait a minute until we weren’t standing in the water anymore. They chose ignorance and I began to usher them to our bus as I laughed to myself.

As we were walking out of the field, one of my boys leaned over to me and said,

“I know we were just standing in poop water. But getting a picture of those flowers for you was worth it. I think Jesus told me that you needed that picture.”

Ohhh my heart. Those were some of the weirdest, yet most sincere and sugary-sweet words I’ve ever heard come out of a 15-year-old boy’s mouth.

I don’t know if this year’s early rainy season was the impetus for the mass blossoming of the Lotus flowers, or whether those pink and white beauties were there all along last June and I was just too blinded by my own raw nerves, emotions, and exhaustion to see them. I tried to get an answer but I never stumbled across a botanist who spoke English in my time in Cambodia, and let’s just say that my Khmai is below-sub-par at best.

Either way, I know the Lotus flowers were God’s grace to me this summer– a tangible reminder that just as my students and I are able to testify to the undying Goodness and Faithfulness of God in the midst of a season of great heartache and loss, that that same God is growing good things in and around all of us through all of that “crap” too.

“For I [am learning to] consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”

(Romans 8:18-19)