Fireweed and God’s Faithfulness

I didn’t sleep that night in May.

Instead, I sat next to my best friend in Alaska and wept as she held my credit card and booked me a flight back to the Lower 48. I read and re-read the news articles that confirmed my worst fear. I deliriously walked circles around the village at 2 AM, and again at 4 AM, in the near-24-hours of summer sunlight. I wrote last minute goodbye letters while my laundry tumbled in the dryer. At one point that night, I knelt on Heather’s living room floor and sorted my belongings into three piles:

Books to ship to Colorado.

Clothes and gear to pack back into my suitcases.

Things that didn’t fit in my suitcases to burn.

Everything seemed surreal as panic attacks and and waves of uncontrollable crying washed over me. The text I’d gotten at exactly midnight that night had undone me entirely. It was the text that brought my time in Alaska to a close two weeks earlier than I’d anticipated and put me on a plane to Iowa to be with my “adoptive” family after an unexpected death.

In my final hours in Port Alsworth, I walked outside with my arms full of my “burn pile”– clothes that had been loved-to-death in Alaska, odds and ends that wouldn’t fit in my luggage, and books I couldn’t pawn off on anyone– and I threw them in a burn barrel. With tears streaming out of the corners of my eyes and freezing on my cheeks, I lit my torch and touched it to the items I loved. I watched the fibers of my once-favorite sweater smolder burgundy, then blue. I touched the flame to the corners of a few books that protruded from the side of the pile. As the wind shifted, the small fires slowly melded together to form one giant flame. I stood there mesmerized by the fire, overcome by another wave of panic and grief. I’m leaving Alaska. Today. This can’t be happening. This wasn’t supposed to end like this.

It really wasn’t. I’d planned to leave Alaska just before Memorial Day with a girlfriend of mine. She’d bought a car in Anchorage and I’d bought a map of Canada off of Amazon. We’d planned to road trip from Anchorage, down through western Canada, to Seattle. We had dreams of adventure and excitement, photo ops, camp outs, audiobooks and a lot of awkward car dancing. Kathryn and I had traced our route not three days before; we had a plan, but it seemed that God had another. And honestly, I hated this plan of His…

That’s all I could think as I stood there staring at the flame that had now engulfed my belongings, slowly turning them into a pile of ash and embers. 

I don’t know how long I stood there in a trance watching that fire. All I know is that a text from the friend who’d arranged my flight into Anchorage snapped me out of my delirium: You need to leave earlier than planned. ASAP. The weather’s getting worse. Can you come now?

I hugged the few people I crossed paths with on my way through the village. When I got to the plane, I huddled under its wing with the few friends and members of my team who’d gotten the memo of my earlier-than-early departure. We cried and prayed and hugged, and before I knew what hit me, the plane was wheels up, flying out of Port Alsworth while I ugly cried in the back seat. Thick fog hid the blue glacial water that my heart loved so much. When I looked back to see my Alaskan home for what felt like the last time, all I could see was a thin column of black smoke coming from the burn barrel that once held my belongings.

It’s probably the combination of sleep deprivation, shock, confusion, over-caffeination, grief, and loss, but most everything I remember from May 21st seems enlarged and uber traumatic– as if I survived a wildfire instead of an unceremonial burning of a few of my belongings and an unexpected move. And most of this summer was colored by that day and metaphor.

Months later, I sat with my roommate in Denver and sobbed. “I just feel like I’m on fire all the time… And ya know what sucks?! Even in the rare moments when I don’t actively feel like I’m on fire, I feel like I could spontaneously combust at any moment. I’m ready to stop grieving and crying and feeling all of these feelings. I’m sick of it. I’m done.” 

“God’s refining you, Kace. I know you’re sick of this season, but from the outside I can see the ways He’s working and it’s beautiful… even if it hurts and is a little bit, okay a lot, like He’s refining you with fire. ”

For months I’ve fought situational depression to feel more like myself and less like a pile of smoldering ashes left behind after a wildfire. And oooooh some days it has felt like I would never be myself again.

But in God’s infinite grace and goodness, He provided an opportunity (and the airline miles/funds) that allowed me to return to Port Alsworth this last week over my fall break to surprise the ones I love there so dearly.

This time around there were tears of joy as I said an unexpected hello instead of tears of sadness as we said an unexpected goodbye. I warmed my hands over campfires with friends instead of crying over burning belongings. At one in the morning, I stood on Heather’s guest bed next to her and looked out the window for the Northern Lights instead of sobbing on her floor as she booked me a flight to Iowa. There was simply so much sweetness and redemption in Him allowing me to spontaneously return to Port Alsworth. (I’m still overwhelmed by the way He loves me and cares about the simple desires of my heart.)

As I left Alaska on Saturday, a friend of mine (completely unaware of my five-month wildfire analogy) pressed a tiny packet of seeds into my palm and simply said, “You’ve said you feel like God is calling you to plant a garden and stay a while in Denver, right? Maybe that garden needs some Alaskan fireweed…”

I smiled and flipped the seed packet over in my hand. As I read the bold print on the back, I knew in an instant that she couldn’t have been more correct given what that little packet said:

Alaskan Fireweed

(Chamerion Angustifolium)

Alaskan fireweed is often seen as a symbol of life and rebirth in the Alaskan Native culture. Fireweed is often one of the first plants to grow in the ashes after wildfires in Alaska.

Anna_Fireweed.jpg
Photo credit: Anna Burrows

The Lord is faithful to bring beauty from ashes, even when His timeline is so clearly not my own. He is faithful to work all things for His glory and the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28)– Trial and sanctification by wildfire, transition, death, and grief included.

After all, there is nothing too permanent for the Lord to redeem, too far out of His reach or too big for Him to handle, or too burnt out to revive.

Thank you Jesus, for You continue to redeem my soul from the pit of emptiness.

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and ostriches for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”

(Isaiah 43:18-20)

The view from the top

There’s something about standing at the summit of a mountain and screaming with joy that makes all the agony of the ascent worIMG_2877th it.

Maybe it’s the 360 degree panoramic view that comes with being thousands of feet above your surroundings. Or the way that view causes the adrenaline to course through your body, momentarily allowing you to forget the pain in your exhausted legs. Perhaps it’s the feeling of accomplishment that comes along with conquering something that seemed “impossible” at least once on the way up the trail. Or maybe it’s the dizzying feeling of intimacy with the Creator that comes with realizing how minuscule you are when compared with the mountain you’re stand on… and that the God who created that very mountain is infinitely bigger than it is. (Say what?!)

I don’t know which of these things it is that causes me to shout, “HOOOOOOOLLLLYYYY CRAAAAAAP! JESUS! WHO ARE YOU!?” at the top of my lungs everytime I stand on top of a mountain, but I do know that all of those factors add up to create the “climbing high” I’m so love with. It’s the euphoria that leads so many of us to attempt ridiculous feats and turns so many Coloradoans into “14-er junkies”.

I may not have “14-ers” accessible to me these days, but oh do I feel like I’ve climbed my fair share of mountains lately. (Some literal, some metaphoric…)

My students and I climbed the mountain at the base of our village the morning after our Tanalian Leadership Center graduation. As I watched them cut trail and post hole through the snow ahead of me, I was struck (again) by the similarities between ministry and mountain climbing.

I’m pretty sure that to be either a climber or a follower of Christ, dedicated to raising up disciples, you have to be a little crazy.

Both tasks are difficult, but incredibly rewarding. Both require you to keep your eyes on the High Place you’re striving to reach. Even if you’re in a ridge or valley, you have to keep looking Up if you want to continue moving forward. On the climb, you learn to endure sore, aching muscles, battle wounds, blisters, and exhaustion beyond what you thought was humanly possible. Like I said, you’ve got to be a little crazy (and a lot fixated on the euphoria of being at the High Place) to be willing to suffer through the pain of the ascent and the disappointment of false summits and trails that lead you down before they zig-zag back up.

Both in ministry and on mountains, I’ve hiked a few grueling miles with students only to realize we’d hit a false summit or a plateau that turned into a valley of sorts. More often than not, this realization lends to all of us hitting frustration and being tempted to take our eyes off the High Place and quit. But this year I’ve watched as my students have learned that when they do that, they settle for so much less than what they know they’ve been created to be able to do.

That Saturday morning as I climbed Tanalian behind the students I’ve come to love, I saw the courage and tenacity that the Lord has grown in them over the past 8 months as they grappled up rough terrain, refusing to give up. Even when they were tired, I watched them take short breaks, look up to the peak above us, and keep trucking forward. As I hiked behind them, a proud “mamasita” (as my boys call me), I was reminded of the speeches and charges each of my students gave to the community and one another the night before at our TLC graduation.

Their words contained the power of the Holy Spirit– the truth of the transforming power of our King. They urged one another on toward the Lord and thanked those in the community who had pushed them to where they stood at the top of the “TLC mountain” with their diploma in their hands.

The students who got off the plane in Port Alsworth on October 5th of last year are not the same students I heard speak at graduation or that I climbed that mountain with on Saturday.

In October they were all a bit timid and unsure of who they were created to be and what they were capable of doing.

But as we stood on Tanalian, waist deep in snow, looking out over our little village and Lark Clark, I stood among “different” young men and women who are now confident in their identities because they are more confident in the Lord and Who He says He is. As I stood with them, I realized I was no longer standing with “my students”– No, I was standing with fellow ministers of the Gospel who are all excited to share what the Lord has done in their lives this year.

I stood in the company of future counselors, preachers, teachers, and missionary pilots.

To get to where they were that morning, or at graduation the night before, they all had to climb a mountain or two of their own with the Lord and I will never say the climb was easy… But by the grace of God, they never took their eyes off the High Place and they learned that while climbing mountains is difficult and exhausting, it didn’t kill them.

As I watched my students board my boss’ plane and take off to their respective villages later that week, my heart overflowed with joy knowing they’ve been equipped, and now sent. I know our paths might not physically cross in the foreseeable future, but I look forward to the day in heaven when I get to hear their stories of the mountains they climbed with Jesus after leaving TLC and the ways they were able to watch the Lord show up in their own “students” lives and hearts.

As for me, all I want to do is rejoice– scream out in joy and praise at the top of my lungs on this Tanalian Leadership Center “mountain”, for the Lord is good. GradHike

He keeps His promises, one of the most beautiful being,

“‘Anyone who believes in Him will never be put to shame.’ For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

 How, then, can someone call on the One they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring Good News!”

(Romans 10:13-15)

My sweet students know the One who saved them. They know in the depths of their hearts that He will never put them to shame, so long as they keep their eyes on Him. They’ve been sent out to declare the Good News and have the opportunity to do so at the very ends of the earth this summer, in Cambodia and in the Alaskan island village of Little Diomede (where there is only one known believer, ps.).

Would you join me in praying for my students as they’ve now returned to their villages as witnesses to the glory of God and as they travel the world (this summer and for the rest of their lives) declaring His powerful name? 

Sweet Jesus, would you build Your Kingdom here.

~

Exciting life update: Joey and my missions trip to Cambodia is over 95% funded and we’re expecting to hit the 100% mark in the next week or so! If you’re interested in supporting our team in prayer or financially, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at KacyLouLeyba@gmail.com.

Or! If you’re interested in spreading the Gospel throughout Alaska, you can support Brandon, Emilyn, Trevor, and our staff as they prepare to go to Little Diomede. You can make a contribution here and earmark it “Little Diomede” in the comment section.

Even if the river otters leave

You’re a failure. You should just give up.

Discouragement had been whispering in my ear all week, and sitting across the dinner table from one of my students as they said they wanted to leave TLC a month early hit me right where it hurt most. I tried to form a response, any response, but the only thing that came to my mind were more accusations and lies.

You suck at this. You haven’t loved them well enough. You already lost one student this year and now you’re about to lose another. You’re gonna spend your last month in Alaska here, in this house, alone. Some ministry… What a waste…

I drew a deep breath and excused myself from the table with a cracking voice. Unsure of where to go, I escaped to my bathroom where I crumbled onto my knees, a silently sobbing heap at the feet of Jesus.

What. The. Heck. Lord. It doesn’t seem like it should be this hard to keep two students in a house for a year… but some days it is; it’s so freaking hard.

~

The beauty of bush life is that just about anything goes here. Because we don’t have roads in our village, we don’t technically have addresses other than our PO box numbers. As life would have it, I’ve learned that some things just don’t ship to PO boxes. Thus, our team has gotten a little creative in putting down roots where the Lord has us by making up our own addresses.

My boss and his family? They live at 44 Magnum Drive, because… Alaska. Two of my most dear friends? You can find them by walking 200 yards north of my house. The trail looks the same, but you’ll “find yourself” at HemmingWay. (Oh, how I adore Heather and all her English nerdiness.) Naturally, my girls and I live at self-proclaimed 723 Jesus Loves River Otters Lane. Because… Jesus. And because we have a pair of mildly vicious river otters who often frolic in the bay in our “backyard”.

~

As I cried, hunched over on my bathroom floor, I begged God to keep my sweet student here at the Tanalian Leadership Center, where I’ve seen Him do so much in her life this year. I prayed over our little house– for Grace to make Himself at home here at our made-up address, because in all honesty, I was so exhausted and discouraged that night that I just wanted to snap back, “JUST LEAVE THEN” with everything in my wounded momma heart.

I battled the doubt and discouragement that was waging war inside of me, twisting my every thought. And I thanked God when He sent me reinforcements in prayer via text message, right as I needed them.

As I sat on the floor battling the lies and the doubt they caused, I tried to differentiate what success and failure would look like in this situation. I sat stumped.

I don’t know what calculating success or failure as a missionary looks like. Logically, I suppose I know I’m not a failure. But that night Jesus reminded me of the struggle against myself and the innate desire to “succeed” I’ve felt nearly every day since moving to Port Alsworth. Most days it’s so tempting to try and measure the success of ministry the way my American upbringing tells me I should—quantitatively. But when I get sucked into the numbers game, I quickly find myself counting the things that feel like failures and not those that seem like success.

  • 1, possibly 2, students gone.
  • 1 student sitting alone, upset at the dinner table as I sobbed on the other side of our house.
  • 3 pots and pans that wouldn’t get washed that night because I was mentally fried.
  • 4 other students I should’ve been preparing to play soccer with after dinner instead of crying.
  • 5…
  • 6…

My list of failures, my questions about success, and my prayers swirled around in my brain until a peace that truly surpassed any (and all) of my understanding washed over me.

“Stop striving, Kacy. Everyone could leave. Everything could ‘go wrong’. Even then, I would still love you. My love for you has never been based on the number of times you succeed or fail. You are Mine and therefore, you are more than enough. Come on, come off the floor, My sweet hot mess of a child… Go and love the ones I’ve placed you with out of the freedom of My fullness instead of the fear of your failure.”

I eventually made it off the floor that night. (Although I never did make it to soccer…Such is life.) A few quiet days passed in our house as I prayed and prayed that my sweet student would decide not to leave TLC prematurely. In the silence of those days, I couldn’t help but earnestly question my deep-seeded need to “succeed” in life, rather than just “be” the woman God has called me to be, where He has called me.

I stood at my stove cooking dinner in the familiar silence Monday night, mulling over the situation for the millionth time when I heard our front door bang open and the voice of  one of my boys. “Mail plane!” he shouted before chucking my packages and letters on the entry way floor and slamming the door shut behind himself.

I made my way over to the pile, picked up a red envelope with the address 723 Jesus Loves River Otters Lane scrawled in my friend’s familiar handwriting, and laughed at the absurdity of this whole season of life. Inside that envelope were the exact words my soul needed from a woman who has delicately reminded me of the Truth of the gospel for nearly four years. Amy wrote:

“No matter what the day has held or what tomorrow will hold, there is sweet purpose and enough-ness in being a daughter of The Father. He has not made a mistake in sending you to Jesus Loves River Otters Lane… even if the river otters leave. May you find sweet satisfaction in Him today.”

riverotters
I have found such sweet contentment drinking in this view (and countless cups of coffee) morning after morning with Jesus. Seeing the squirmy river otters in the bay are always a welcome bonus, but I am daily reminded that they are not the prize; being where I’m meant to be, with Who I was created to be with? That’s the most beautiful thing of all.

“Even if the willow tree does not blossom, nor fresh fruit be in my grocery order, even if the produce I ordered for ‘family dinner’ freezes at altitude in the plane and rots before it makes it to my kitchen, and the ‘fields of future believers’ that I thought would be ripe for harvest refuse Jesus… Even if the students/river otters I love leave me and silence fills my house, I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. For God, the Lord, is my strength: He makes my feet like the Dahl Sheep’s; He allows me tread on His mountain tops (and lovingly meets me when I am low on my knees).”

(Habakkuk 3:17-19, The Alaska edition)