When #MeToo gets personal: a guest post from the lovely Kathryn Bronn

Kathryn and my friendship began a few years before the chapter of her story that she shares in the guest post(s) below.

I remember the December day in 2013 when I hugged her goodbye outside of Purple Door Coffee; she was preparing to pursue the dream the Lord had given her of documenting stories and teaching art in Rwanda, Africa, and even though we didn’t know when our paths would cross again, I was pumped to see her step into her joy.

Three weeks after we parted ways, my phone buzzed at work as a Facebook Messenger alert crossed my screen:

“Kace. I have no cell phone… I was raped, and it was essential for me to get out of there. There’s the possibility of HIV and/or pregnancy, and everything else… I’m just focused on getting home now, everything else will be sorted out in time.”

The chills I felt that day as I read my dear friend’s words pale in comparison to the chills I had last week as I read her blog series on the Lord’s redemption of the worst day of her life.

This is your warning– the following post may be difficult to read, but if you can, I beg you to do so. Kathryn’s story is important for so many reasons.

It is real and raw, and I applaud her for boldly sharing the story the Lord has given her because I know first hand that her level of transparency is healing.

It was Kathryn’s Facebook Message that the Lord used to bring me to my knees in my classroom that afternoon, and that same message that He used to propel me into counseling later that spring (kicking and screaming [mostly screaming]) where I was first able to acknowledge, then begin to come to terms with my own past sexual abuse.

Shortly after her return to the States, but years before the semi-colon tattoo/ depression awareness movement and last fall’s social media #MeToo hashtag, Kathryn and I had a “me too” movement of our own. We decided that where our minds wanted to put a period– where we wanted to stop, to break down, to cease moving forward– we were going to allow Jesus to place a semi-colon– the lingual sign of moving forward with a similar and related story. IMG_1880

What man had meant for evil in our pasts, we were going to fight with every. fiber. of our beings. to bring to the light and give over to God. In a tattoo parlor in 2014, we vowed that our past abuse would no longer define or confine us.

However, as I watched #MeToo sweep social media last fall, I stared at my phone– a silent participant, acutely aware of the multitude of ways my own fear and shame has continued to confine me over the years, in spite of the tattoo I proudly display on my forefinger.

So while I’m “late to the party”, my heart’s desire is to tell you, sweet friends, that if you have ever been the victim of sexual harassment or abuse, you are not alone.

There is Hope.

There is healing in the tender arms of Christ. 

Christ sees you. He loves you.

He is the bearer of every burden, if you allow Him to be.

I repeat: You. are. not. alone.

Thank you, Kathryn for paving the way to healing for me and hundreds of women all over the world.

Thank you for giving me the courage to say #MeToo four years ago and again today.

; Kace


4 Years Later :: How God Keeps Redeeming the Worst Day of My Life By: Kathryn Bronn

Bronn_00223This week marked the 4 year anniversary of being raped while doing volunteer work in Rwanda.  That statement is loaded, I know.  The crazy thing is, I was most of the way through the day earlier in the week before I realized what day it was.  As in, I forgot about it.  As in, the day doesn’t lord it’s bad memory over me anymore.  In year one, it surely did.  Year two, was bittersweet.  Year three, I still remembered, but now, year four… praise to the God who “restores the years the locusts have eaten”.

As I marveled at the work of my good Father, I felt like the time had finally come to share the whole story.  The whole season…because surely, that’s what it was.  A moment triggered a season, a hurt became a catalyst for the most profound healing.  A wounded heart and broken girl called out all that is good and beautiful and awe-inspiring in God’s people and my community, and brought about some of the closest relationships I have ever been privileged to be in. I want to share, not just to expose the story once again, but to offer hope.  The story has been shared, and shared, and shared!  I have never kept it a secret. The sharing has been incredibly helpful, and sparked many other women to share their stories as well.  But it’s even more than that… I want to tell of the wonderful works my God has done.  I want to declare that I was surrounded by people who did and said the RIGHT things, and I want to share those things as a resource for whenever YOU have a girl who has been abused come across your path.  And finally, I want to offer hope to those who have been victims.  I want to say that this year, year 4, I didn’t even remember the day until my Facebook memories reminded me of it.  There is HOPE for HEALING.  A day, a moment, and a season does not have to steal your future.  

I’m in a new season of life now, in a new country with new people.  For a long time, this “thing” about me, this brokenness, was worn in such a way that it was just right up front.  People knew, it was a prominent part of my story.  I was in the midst of it, and in the midst of coping, dealing, healing. Now, it is still part of my story, still very defining.  However, it is not “the” defining thing, and God has brought me out into new territory after it.  Many people are new in my life and know nothing of it, because it doesn’t come up like it used to. It is important, though,  to remember Him and His works, and it is important to share the stories He gives us.  There are times when I feel like I shouldn’t share anymore, like He has healed me and I should just move on and be done with this testimony.  Not too long ago, I was reading “Through Gates of Splendor” by Elisabeth Elliot, the story that is famous around the world about her husband and his friends, killed on the mission field in the 50’s.  She shared these words as an afterward, written as a much older woman–

“I have not been allowed to forget the story. I would not have wanted to forget it, but there have been times when I have wondered if others might. Perhaps they have tired of it. Should I continue the retelling as I am so often asked to do? I spoke of my misgivings to Miss Corrie ten Boom who, as an old lady, indefatigably traveled the world to tell her own story over and over again, of her family’s providing refuge to Jews in Holland during World War II, of their being betrayed and imprisoned in a concentration camp, and of the deaths of her sister and aged father as a result. “Sometimes,” she told me, “I have said, ‘Lord, I must have something fresh. I cannot go on telling the old story.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘This is the story I gave you. You tell that one.’ ” So Corrie encouraged me to go on telling mine.”

And so I shall also go on sharing mine, because it is so full of the love of Jesus I can hardly stand it.  It is the worst thing that ever happened to me, and the way that God stopped me in my tracks and did a marvelous work as well. 

I’m going to share this in 3 parts, because it’s kind of a long story.  Part 3 will be all of the practical resources I can offer (or that were helpful to me), as well as an essay I wrote about 10 months after the rape which I have never shared until now.

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Kigali, Rwanda :: January 25, 2014

Oh, that day was such a fun day.  The whole day had a brightness about it, a sunshine and warmth.  The kids at the art program were delighted to come out to the studio on a Saturday, and on this day we were doing a special photography class. I had been in Rwanda for 3 weeks, and intended to stay another month or so before heading to Uganda.  I was fresh, oh so fresh, out of art school, ready to take on the world and serve in any way I could, particularly using my camera.  I was eager, I was green, I was naive by choice to many things and ridiculously optimistic.  I had spent the last 9 months of art school saving up for a big trip, part tourist and part serving work in a Christian mission, to explore my options for the future.  My own wedding and portraits business was really taking off, and I had quit all my part-time restaurant jobs months before to just do photography.  I also felt the continual call to the mission field, a nudging that had been a familiar companion since my early teens.  I had barely gotten out of art school still alive with my Christian faith, it being tested pretty persistently with the incredibly liberal and strange culture of art students,  drugs and drinking.  I had some big questions for God. To be completely honest, I had some pretty big pride and that awful Western “Savior complex”.  I had a desire for answers and the spare time to explore.

A friend connected me with an American woman who had been living in Rwanda for several years, running an after-school art program for kids in a rough neighborhood of Kigali.  She was headed to the States for a few months and wanted an intern to take over for her for a bit, which seemed like a perfect fit for me!  She provided me a place to live, and I came up with art and photography classes to teach, while learning the culture and the kids.  In the beginning of January 2014, just after arriving and getting situated for a few days, she left me and her program in the hands of an older Rwandan woman (who incidentally was out of town for nearly my entire stay there), and a young Rwandan man, the same age as me. I’m going to call him Charles and not use his real name.

That Saturday, we had a full house.  The kids were crowded into the studio, as well as using the cameras provided by the program to go outside and photograph the neighbors. The older kids had a line of people wanting to get passport photos.  The mamas were even around, with their pedal sewing machines set up in the shade outside, doing mending for the children and whoever stopped by to bring them pants. I felt like I was in my full glory, laughing and singing and dancing with the kids.  The girls decided I needed to learn how to balance things on my head like a Rwandan woman, so they tied a little girl to my back, and wrapped my head up in a scarf and balanced a bucket on top of it all.  We took turns photographing each other, I taught them some of the lighting techniques I had just learned in school.  In the afternoon, a downpour began and all the passersby crowded in to our tiny space for some shelter.

That evening, to celebrate the successful day, Charles suggested we go out to eat, and his cousin would meet us at the restaurant.  We did just that, and ate, drank, laughed.  I learned several new phrases in Kinyarwanda, I asked many questions about their lives and growing up in their country as it healed from its deep wounds.  About an hour in, I got super sick, and started throwing up at the restaurant. Never have I figured out if it was food poisoning or there was something in my drink, but I was violently ill all the same.  The restroom attendant thought I was drunk and said I had to leave the premises at once.  The two men I was with carried me to a taxi, as I couldn’t walk and was bent double with nausea, and agreed to take me home.  I was so sick in the taxi though, and the driver was not pleased, that Charles said he could take me to his house to rest for a bit, since it was right around the corner.

A lot is foggy, really.  I remember being laid out on a bed in a tiny two room “house” that was little more than a shack and being given a bucket.  I remember continually vomiting.  And I remember that he raped me. It was not violent, as I was pretty incapacitated and couldn’t fight him off.  It was all so confusing.  I hadn’t seen it coming at all, not even a little bit.  I just held still and searched my mind for what I could have done wrong, where I misunderstood the culture, what foolish mistakes I had made that day.

Kigali, Rwanda :: January 26, 2014

I went to the hospital to get some fluids because I was so dehydrated and afraid that the water would only make me worse.  I told them I had been raped, and the doctor told me that if I turned the man in, he’d get 25 years to life in prison.  The doctor gave me a pregnancy test, which terrified me, and I was also confused…didn’t this just happen? Surely you couldn’t know yet… I was in a state of shock though, and couldn’t think rationally.  I later Skyped one of my best friends back in Colorado and told her what had happened.  She immediately went next door and grabbed our pastor (who just happened to be her neighbor and home at the time), and we all got on Skype together.  She cried, my pastor cried, I just sat there stoney faced and confused.  They asked what I wanted to do, and I actually had to think through it a bit.  In the end, we decided to get me home and go from there…I didn’t want to leave Africa, or the kids program or my long trip I had planned out.  Yet, I also didn’t want to stay in a place where I was alone and so terribly oblivious to culture and legal systems.

Charles wanted me to be his girlfriend afterwards.  He came over later that day, and I confronted him.  I told him that what he had done was wrong.  He had fear in his eyes.  He never took responsibility for the act, but he was afraid which showed me he knew he was wrong.  I told him I was leaving and to never contact me again.  Maybe I should have turned him in to the police.  Maybe I enabled him to hurt someone else.  That responsibility has always felt heavy on my shoulders, but I also knew I was a single white girl in a foreign country and a fish out of water.  I learned some pretty serious cultural differences right there.  I was slapped in the face with the truth that I had a false sense of security and, dare I say, a sense of  invincibility as an American girl. I realized in that moment that women are looked at differently in different parts of the world, that I as a foreigner was viewed as loose and willing.  In that instance, from his point of view and cultural upbringing, I probably DID do everything that indicated I wanted intimacy with him.

This singular part of the story has been one of the hardest parts to overcome.  In hindsight, I should have taken some classes on culture before going.  I should have done more research and asked more people what were the appropriate ways to act around the men in that country.  But I didn’t.  So maybe I did communicate in many ways that I was completely unaware of that I wanted him.  Maybe had I gone with a more structured organization, maybe if I had been accountable to some others there, instead of just being left with this one guy… maybe maybe maybe.  Some of my questions have been worked out, but others not.

A few hours later, I was on the longest plane ride of my life, headed back toward the United States.

I’m going to say this right here, as an interjection into the story:  THE FACT THAT I TOLD SOMEONE RIGHT AWAY about being raped has probably been the greatest catalyst of healing from it.  I’m a terrible secret keeper, and usually my face reveals all anyway.  This time, it was to my advantage. Had I kept it a secret, I would have remained in Africa for another month or two.  The guilt and shame and lies would have ample time to take root, and then what?  I said something Day 1, and it has been to my advantage ever since then.  It made it easier to say something Day 2, and Day 3 and forward from there.  In the past 4 years, I have ended up hearing countless stories of women who either a) kept their rape a secret for months/years/decades and lived with the burden of its shame always in their souls or b) told someone and were accused that it was their fault or told to just forget about it.  I have MUCH more to say about this later on.  WHY on earth was the response to me sharing  gentle and compassionate, filled with tears and words of truth?  I don’t know.  God did it. He provided that, and the only reason I keep sharing my story is to offer it to other women as well.

The story doesn’t end there, of course.  There is SO MUCH REDEMPTION in this story I can still sometimes not even believe it. You’ll have to read Part 2 and Part 3 of the story, which are really the best parts and a testament to the grace and healing work of God.


Follow Kathryn’s blog here or follow her work with Reach Global and stunning photography on Instagram here.

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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.

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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.

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“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)

 

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)

Corkscrews and broken record players

There’s a cyclical aspect to grief.

The visual that comes to my mind is more of a corkscrew than a perfect circle though. Maybe that’s it… Maybe grief is a corkscrew that winds deeper and deeper into my heart over time. With each birthday of a lost loved one or the anniversary of their death, I feel myself returning nearly full-circle to the pain and discontentment I felt in my heart a year ago. But those feelings are ever so slightly different this time around…

At each turn, I find myself saying the same phrase I’ve said a million times: I want to be done grieving. And yet, I’m not. I’m still not done.

May was brimming with birthdays and anniversaries of days I’d rather not have engrained in my mind. This month has brought about much celebrating and mourning– so many twists of that metaphorical corkscrew. With each near-circle, the Lord has reached new depths of my heart, bringing about fresh pain while using that pain to expose my own sin, cynicism, pride, and bitterness.

It’s good though, this cyclical process, the screwing in and stripping away… It’s “capital G Good”, “type-2 Good” if I can borrow from the idea of “type-2 fun” and twist it to create a concept. It’s Good not because it feels good (because it doesn’t). It’s Good because as painful as the corkscrew drilling down into my heart is, and for as much as I grimace and cry, I can feel the Lord tenderly speaking healing over my wounds and fears in His timing.

He continues to prove Himself as the Great Physician, even when my wounds seem to deepen or the grief I so desperately want to be over compounds.

As I’ve walked through this month of intermingled celebration and mourning, there have been days where I have found myself a broken record player saying/ screaming/ silently cursing the words that filled my journal and conversations this time last year:

I don’t understand.

I still don’t understand.

I don’t understand the brokenness. I don’t understand this pain. I don’t understand death and separation and the finality of each that sinks in on a new level every day.

I don’t understand why this is Your plan, God.

Yet there, in the screaming and beside my silent cold shoulder He has faithfully met me this month, bringing words of truth from Hope When It Hurts (a devotional on suffering that has been my path back to Jesus many mornings throughout this messy season).

“‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55:8-9)

If God always acted in ways that made sense to us, then He certainly wouldn’t have sent His sinless Son to die in our place, offering us complete forgiveness and acceptance freely through Christ before anyone even asked Him to (Romans 5:8).”

In a plot twist of sorts, on the year anniversary of Kevin’s death, with another turn of the metaphorical corkscrew, I found myself on my knees in the grass outside of Denver General Hospital, weeping and terrified. Twenty minutes before I had received the news that my grandfather– the anchor of our family– had had a stroke. And on a day where the grief already felt like a bit too much, the corkscrew went deeper into my heart and pushed me to my knees. Outside of that hospital in the middle of downtown Denver, my broken record brain repeated my familiar song through tears yet again:

I don’t understand.

Nearly a week removed from that day, the Truth remains that I don’t need to understand; I likely never will.

This week as I’ve sat in a hospital room next to my dozing grandfather, I’ve played one of his favorite jazz records over my phone speaker. In those moments, I’ve closed my eyes and held his hand, pretending we’re in his basement listening to that record play over his beautiful antique phonograph, instead of in a room full of beeping machines.

In those moments, and the moments between, I’ve struggled to make the choice to replace my own broken-record-inner-monologue with Truth. The reality is that I have struggled against the root of bitterness this week (month) [year]. My prayers have been funky and nonsensical, an inconsistent mix of submission, confession, expletives, and stabs at thankfulness that my God isn’t one Who operates within the scope of my understanding.

The other reality within all of this is that I don’t know how this story will continue on.

I don’t know why the Lord has placed me back in a situation so similar to that of the last week of May 2016. I don’t understand why He has me asking roughly the same question I was asking this time last year as I was preparing to leave for Cambodia: “What if someone else I love dies when I go to Asia?”

I really, truly don’t understand.

But by His grace I am finding peace in fits and starts through the Truth that the most illogical events on earth brought about my greatest Good when my perfect Jesus died on the cross, then rose three days later.

(And in the moments when the corkscrew turns and I simply can’t be the one to fight for that Truth, I’m learning to turn on worship music and allow Him to be the One to become the answer to my questions.)

“Because I spoke of things I do not understand, things too Wonderful for me. Although I had no right to ask, my God knelt and answered me.” -Ghost Ship, “Where Were You”