Growing in doubt

In my 10 months in the Alaskan bush, I only saw fresh flowers once. I never knew how much I cherished having green plants and flowers in my home until I moved to the scenic middle of nowhere, where the closest vegetables, fruits, and flora to me were 165 miles and a flight away in Anchorage.

At times, I became so desperate to have foliage in my Willows
home that I took to cutting pine branches and willow buds off of trees and “potting” them in old growlers around my kitchen.

Last March, the winter ice thawed off of the trees and village trails, giving way to blossoms and ankle-deep mud– a sure fire sign that spring had sprung in Alaska. As I walked the trails to and from the local school every day and felt the thick mud tug on my goulashes, I also began to feel a familiar tug in my little Coloradoan heart– the desire to plant. The desire to see fresh, green growth.

I’d made the conscious decision when I was 17 that I would become a woman who gardened. And thus, every year since, I’ve cleared a semi-sacred afternoon in March to plant seedlings for what I hoped would one day become an autumn harvest. In years past, I’ve proceeded to take over the dining room table, window sills, and any other sunny surfaces of the houses I’ve lived in, filling them with trays of dirt and seedlings (which I’ve learned my lesson about trying to plant in the ground until after Memorial Day in Colorado…).

gardenPremature planting isn’t the only lesson I’ve learned from gardening though; over the years, the Lord has taught me so many sweet lessons about being more patient with my DSS students and allowing death to occur in my life so I can taste the sweetness of the resurrection. He has spoken to my soul through mud pies within that little picket fence and I swear there’s a clarity to His voice that comes when my little hippie soul is barefoot in a garden and my hands are covered in fresh earth…

That clarity is what my soul longed for last spring. As I walked those muddy trails home from work, my heart physically ached for the familiarity of my annual tradition. But due to the fact that I was surrounded by hundreds of miles of tundra and moss, I continued to cut willow buds on my “commute” and struggled to be content in the season the Lord had placed me in– one where my only interaction with dirt came from the slurping noises of mud as it threatened to suck my rain boots right off my feet.

My inability to physically plant a garden in the face of said longing made sense for that season, as Jesus was teaching me to desire other things. As such, my longing for familiarity and tiny garden seedlings went unfulfilled for my entire season of life in Port Alsworth.

In fact, my only opportunity to physically plant anything in 2016 came at beginning of summer, the beginning of a season of death that seemed to muddy most everything about my heart for the remainder ArlenesMarigoldof the year. This opportunity to plant a garden caught me entirely off guard because in the blink of an eye, I’d been called away from Alaska and was on my hands and knees in my “adopted mom’s” flowerbed in Iowa. As she worshipped through tears and planned her son’s funeral, I knelt outside the kitchen and planted her marigolds and petunias.

While tenderly planting Arlene’s flowers was an answer to the longing in my heart to be reunited with soil, those flowers were bitterly watered with tears. Those tears, ones that stemmed from pain and doubt, mixed with the soil, and created the metaphorical mud weighed heavy on my heart.

Last week, I sat on our back porch one afternoon as I struggled to process that mud and doubt that still lingers in my heart, even 10 months into this strange season of loss and readjustment. Between sentences in my journal, I stared at the empty garden in the corner of our yard.

As I did so, images of me walking the muddy paths of Port Alsworth, kneeling in Arlene’s garden, and of my own hands tending the Yarrow garden in years past flashed through my mind. In that moment, my throat constricted. Grief threatened to overwhelm me.

For better or for worse, I shook off that feeling, set my journal down, and took a walk down the street to Home Depot. I spent the rest of that day doing what my heart so desired this time last year. Acutely aware of how thankful I was for the familiarity of my own tradition, I thumbed seeds into trays of dirt in the sunshine and ceremoniously prayed over my little seedlings.

Grow, little seeds. Thrive. Struggle up through the dirt. Come toward the sun.

As I planted and half-mumbled my prayers, words from Hannah Anderson’s new book Humble Roots came to mind:

“We must create space for questions and doubt that lead to growth. But to do this, we must be comfortable with questions and uncertainty ourselves.” “This process can only happen in relationship; it can only happen as [we] depend on Him” (p. 130-131).

It’s exactly that space– space where I’ve learned to question, wrestle, and doubt– that the Lord has dug out and created in my life this year; even though I admittedly wanted nothing to do with it.

Since those late May days on my knees in the Miller’s flowerbed, I’ve wrestled with doubts I’m not proud to admit that I’ve had. I’ve cried and screamed, asking God if He’s real. If He’s Good. If He even cares. If I can trust Him. Where He was in the midst of tragedy, cancer, transition, loss, and death after death.

But it has been through this process and my hokey tradition of planting yet another year’s garden, that I have found Him in the dirt and myself in the seeds.

In the winter months, I felt half-dead, silent, dormant, awaiting new life to spring forth. Yet I fought the Lord every time He tried to root me to Him in the darkness. Little did I know, the dark hole in the soil, that place of questioning and doubt, was exactly the environment that would allow my seeds and questions to find nourishment and Truth in Him, and thrive.

Every morning as I water my little trays of seedlings and turn them toward the Colorado sunshine, I’m reminded that I’m not the one responsible for making them root down into the soil or stretch up toward the sun any more than I’m capable of controlling my own journey out of the mud and muck of grief.

Jesus is faithful to allow growth in its time, even when the precursor to growth feels a lot like being buried in the dirt and covered with manure. 

“For neither the one who plants nor waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:7)

 

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Nothing but the blood of Jesus

“What can wash away my sin?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

Whenever I hear that song, I’m immediately back in Hannah’s car driving the stretch of country highway between Kalona and Riverside in Iowa last May 31st. That night the humid summer air broke and gave way to a storm unlike many I’ve seen in my life.

As I drove, Latifah Phillips’ voice filled the car with that old hymn. I sang along so loud, so hard, for so long that I couldn’t breathe. As I continued to mouth the lyrics, I started bawling too hard to be driving so fast. The rain that had begun as a steady shower picked up to a downpour and I couldn’t see a thing. Seeing out of the windshield seemed to be a moot point though, given the ferocity with which water was coming out of my own eyes.

Still I kept driving, straight down the highway. Occasionally I would turn the steering wheel a smidge as lightening struck on either side of the car, illuminating slight curves in the long country road.

With the blinding lightening came claps of thunder that shook the car. On the fifth or six, I swerved the car off the highway, onto the dirt shoulder, and punched the brake out of panic. As the car skidded to a stop, I felt my heart pounding in my fingers as they death griped “my sister’s” steering wheel. I turned on the hazard lights to avoid further tragedy in our week and I screamed.

In hindsight, I don’t really know why I screamed. In that exact moment I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t feel helpless. I wasn’t angry or overwhelmed, and yet I was. I was all of those things. And in addition to every single emotion (and I mean every. single. emotion.) that surged through my body like fire in my veins, I was out of control.

I couldn’t fix anyone’s problems. I couldn’t bring our loved one back. I couldn’t heal, or resurrect, or be the one to bring anyone joy. Like Peter and John speaking to the lame beggar in Acts 3:6, all I could do was kneel beside the heartbroken people I loved and say, “Silver and gold I have none. All I have to give you is the name of Jesus Christ.” And in this pain, in their agony those words seemed to fall so short. In that season and in those moments, Jesus didn’t feel like enough, no matter what truths my mind tried to proclaim over my heart or the hearts of those around me.

Two months later and again eight months after that, I sat next to my sister and in silent solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Alaska and wept. Even though I understand that these circumstances are only our earthly losses, and that they have brought about our departed’s gains in the glorious presence of Christ, I still have days where I feel as though I can’t do anything but weep.

Daily I continue to wrestle with a lack of words and control– an agonizing experience for a writer and closet control freak like myself. No matter how much time has passed, I remain out of control, unable to heal the wounds of the ones I love and unable to do anything except kneel beside them and quietly offer Jesus.

This is a season in which my pride has been broken down– surely for the “better”– but in a way which my seeming capabilities as a writer and counselor have taken a hit. I’m learning to be “okay” with the fact that I still have moments in which gasping and crying and wordless screaming replaces speaking, which is likely for the better, even though it often hurts like hell.

Because it is in (and after) those moments that I am back on that highway, skidding to a stop, allowing the truth to wash over me:

“What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

His power does not fall short in my inability to express the thousands of inexpressible emotions in my heart or comfort those around me. For here at the end of myself, He begins. And that is all any of us truly need– the blood of Jesus. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

When the only path through grieving is… through…

On the heels of a year where the Lord taught me to live vulnerably in tight-knit community and through writing my heart out on this website, I came to a place at the beginning of last summer where words felt entirely inadequate to express the thoughts and emotions that flooded my body on a daily basis. In the span of two months, I had unexpectedly lost a dear friend, my “adopted little brother” in a motorcycle accident and a childhood friend to cancer. As I traveled last summer, I continued to journal and write privately, figuring that this lack of “words to share” would pass in due time.

When I resumed my “normal” life in Colorado in August, I felt strongly that I was being called into a season of silent processing with the Lord and I decided that a break from public writing was what I needed to do to respect that season of life. But as time here in Colorado wore on and transition turned to stability, my ability (and desire) to vulnerably share “where I was at” began to wane. Over time, I closed into myself, shutting nearly everyone else out so dramatically that most days I didn’t know how not to. (Aside: If I’ve done this to you, please, please, please know I didn’t mean to hurt you if I have. I want to sit down over a cup of coffee with you. I want to mend relationships. I want you to know that as much as it sounds like a cheesy relationship line or an excuse, “It’s not you. It’s never been you. It’s me. I’m a mess.”)

In the days that preceded the disappearance of my friends and our plane in December, I felt a shift occurring in my heart; I knew my season of silent processing was being called to an end. I knew I was supposed to start writing again. And yet, when the plane went down, a part of me went down with it. Obviously, the part of my heart that held Scott, Kyle, Zach, & Kaitlyn dear, but the articulate part of me was also lost that day.

For months, I’ve struggled with and through depression, trying and failing to express anything of real value without bursting into tears. Despite feeling the Lord pressing me to write or express my heart in whatever way I could, I couldn’t do it. Time and time again, as I’ve tried to write, I instead closed my laptop and retreated back into my own introverted brain.

In those moments, a part of me knew I was being disobedient to what God was calling me to in my grief. I knew closing myself off wasn’t a true solution to any of my problems, and yet in this complex season, I didn’t know how to stop.

Thus, I’ve spent my weeknights and weekends largely holed away from community, avoiding my laptop, and wrestling with the Lord in coffee shops and counseling, or while crying with my roommates on the Yarrow kitchen floor.

In the individual nights of these last few months I’ve felt the extent of just how little I have “it” together (whatever “it” is…). And to be honest? This realization of the extent of my weakness paired with this “calling” to be vulnerable in that weakness?? It’s scared the living daylights out of me.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know how to not tell other’s stories while telling mine because they’re so intertwined. I’m scared of unintentionally drudging up pain for the people I love, those who are walking through this complicated season of grief too. I don’t want to be “that sad writer” or ever come across as though I’m seeking pity, because I beg you to realize, I’m not. 

I so desperately want to feel “normal” again. I want to stop crying. I want to stop grieving from the core of my being.

But that’s not where the Lord has me… 

Instead, I’m here in this weird in-between– the place where I thought I was finally “okay” enough to attend a symposium on gospel-centered grieving and most days am more hopeful than I am bitter with God.

I’m here, in the muck and the mire of loss and redemption, joy and grief.

I’m desperately seeking contentedness with God’s plan when in actuality? I feel like I can’t handle being content with this new reality without the people I love. And the mere thought of trying to do so spiraled me into a panic attack Friday night at said grief symposium where I ended up running out of the sanctuary and ugly crying/ snotting into a close friend’s hair on our church steps.

This season isn’t cute.

It’s rendered me a mess. One giant freaking paradox.

Yet daily throughout this season, I have heard the invitation of Jesus to the weary in Matthew 11– “Come to Me.” And privately, I have. Through His sweet grace that I know I possess and yet so desperately crave more of, I come to Him a little more each day.

Today’s come to Jesus moment has been through obedience and tears; it is through a long overdue introduction/ continuation to this convoluted season through writing although I’d much rather remain silent and still, alone with Him and my little blue journal.

It comes through breathing life back into this dusty, neglected blog and it comes in the same vein as the words I’ve read time and time again this year: “The only way out of grief is through.”

Part of me hopes that maybe writing again will be the beginning of the end of this messy chapter. Most of me knows that more than likely it’s not; but I simply hope am confident that somewhere in this mess, in this journey through grief, I will see more of Jesus and I pray somehow you do too…

{To be continued}

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

(Psalm 27:13)

“Oh Holy Night, the weary soul rejoices…”

I’ve spent the morning curled up on the Yarrow House sofa here in Denver. Six different versions of “Oh Holy Night” have looped on my Spotify as I’ve sat, staring vacantly at our Christmas tree and the Bible in my lap. No matter how long I look at either, I’m unable to reconcile myself to the joy that either thing should bring me in this season of Advent.

It was on this day two years ago that one of my Street School students was killed in gang warfare. And even though it seems like two years have passed, it was just last night that we received what I still can’t bring myself to believe is the final word that four of my loved ones in Alaska likely won’t return home after their plane went missing on a flight from our village to Anchorage Wednesday.

On December 10th, a day that has already been agonizing these last two years, I admittedly have been struggling with feeling more helpless and hopeless than ever. I long to be able to fix something. Anything. I long to be 3,500 miles away from this sofa, embracing my dear friends in Port Alsworth whose lives have been forever changed by a routine commute that turned into all of our worst nightmare.

My heart breaks more and more for those I love with every text, phone call, and update I receive because I know there is not a single one of us from that beautiful little bush village unscathed by this tragedy. Within that heartbreak I have heard the screams and cries of my friends who have lost members of their family and there simply aren’t words for, or to say in response to, that kind of suffering or pain.

Even though I am in the city where Johnny died, physically close to those affected by that tragedy two years ago, I am incapable of doing anything to change the situation here either. We will never be able to bring him back, answer the still-outstanding questions, or heal the residual pain his family, my students, and our Street School staff still feel.

As my mind has swung between these tragedies, desperately trying to make sense of something, the only conclusion I’ve reached is this: Never in my life have I felt such a deep ache for Someone to save me or the people I love from the pain and brokenness of this world. Never in my life have I longed so deeply for a Savior. 

While my heart can’t seem to consider celebrating anything right about now, I know the truth: we will soon celebrate the fact that our Savior has already come.

The Bible in my lap, my brothers and sisters (near and far) who have prayed and cried with me this week, the song that keeps repeating itself over my computer speakers, and even the silly cultural tradition of sticking a dying tree in our living room and wrapping it in lights point me back to that truth–

Our Savior has come. Christ came, incarnate as a helpless baby, and died as the Most Powerful King to save us from both our sin and our sorrow. Past, present, and future.

Two thousand years ago He became Emmanuel and Emmanuel He is still.
God with us.
God with all who mourn.
God with all who weep.
God wrapping His arms around every person who knows and loves Port Alsworth, the Longerbeams, the Bloms, and Johnny’s family.
God indwelling in those of us who call Him Abba, Father.
God who came to rescue.
God who will make all things new.

And thus I proclaim over my own trembling heart and that of those around me, that even as the news we receive today and this week will likely worsen by earthly standards, the good news that Christ has come for us and can wrap us in His arms now and for eternity is. indeed. Good. News.

Even if everything else falls apart, His sovereign plan, loving promise, Good News, and ultimate sacrifice remains the same– it is the only Good News we could ever truly need.

“Oh holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees, Oh heart the angel voices
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name!

Christ is the Lord, Oh praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim

Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices,
Oh night, Oh night, Oh night divine.”

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Oh, Jesus. Make our hearts believe. Make our hearts believe while we are here on our knees…

~~~

If you, like me, wish you could do something but don’t know what to do, you can donate to any of the Go Fund Me accounts below. The first two are to help cover memorial service/funeral costs for the Blom and Longerbeam families. The last is to help some of the Bloms’ dear friends make it to Alaska for Scott, Zach, and Kaitlyn’s celebration of life.

Blom family memorial service / out of state family travel expenses

Kyle’s memorial service / family travel expenses

Help send the Brent/ Boe families to Alaska

Steam & shame: Unexpected gospel lessons in a 200 degree room

“My girls want me to “steam” with them today. AKA how people in the villages traditionally bathe. Together. In a 200-something-degree room. Did I mention: Together. As in: With. Other. People. Can we just talk about the fact that Jesus is pushing on ALL of my insecurities in Alaska?! I didn’t sign up for this. Help.”

While I understand that discussing public bathing may be running the risk of over sharing here, I beg you to stick with me…

You see, I sent that text message to friend back in Colorado last fall on the afternoon I was introduced to the “maqii” (or steam).

One of my sweet Native friends, Yvette, had come to TLC the week before to present for our Native culture night. She spoke to two very different groups within the ten or so of us seated around the table:

To my native students, she explained the intricacies and traditions of her people, the Dena’ina— a people group with incredibly similar customs to my Yup’ik and Aleut students. She told them the legends that her grandmother had told her—legends involving the ‘powers’ of bears and eagles and other wild creatures that are so intertwined with almost every aspect of Native culture. She told stories about growing up in the nearby village of Nondalton, as well as tales of the family legacy she carries on by drying and canning hundreds of salmon every summer and butchering moose in the fall. I sat at the end of the table and watched as the students I was just getting to know shook their heads and smiled their sweet, shy smiles of understanding and agreement as she spoke.

Then to those of us Alaskan newbs, she explained everything from Akutaq (Native “ice cream” consisting of frozen berries, fish, Crisco, and sugar), to what a normal day would look like for someone living in a traditional village. I leaned back in my chair, drinking in everything she said.

nativeculturenight
Yvette with the 2015-2016 TLC students

“Where I come from, and when I was growing up, all of the women and all of the men of a family would bathe with their respective genders, together in a steam bath.”

She paused to laugh at my awkwardness as I nearly fell sideways out of my chair from shock, then embarrassment.

“When I tell non-Natives that, I get really uncomfortable or horrified looks… kinda like the way Kacy’s looking at me.”

All of my students immediately glanced my way and smirked as I turned a shade of red I thought was impossible for Mexicans to turn. Thankfully Yvette let me off the hook and quickly continued on.

“The steam was a place of vulnerability—where the elder women would talk amongst themselves or pass down knowledge to younger girls. There wasn’t a single topic that was shameful or off-limits in the steam; that was how we were raised. But I’ve noticed that something has changed in the generations that have come after mine.

The younger women, they don’t want to steam with the older women any more. They find it more awkward and less of a part of our culture. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that young women have more pressure these days to be or look a certain way… And just like they don’t steam with the older women, the girls don’t talk to the older women the way we used to when we were kids. There’s a disconnect within our people between the generations. There is a segregation because of shame.

Our young women don’t feel comfortable in their own skin. They don’t feel comfortable enough with who they are (or aren’t) to ask the hard questions of life or receive the potentially uncomfortable wisdom of an elder. It makes me sad to see the way shame is stealing our people.”

As I processed Yvette’s words within the “honor-versus-shame” Native culture of TLC, my perspective and definition of shame began to shift. Over time I came to realize that at its core shame is a deep-seeded feeling of not being good enough, a feeling that proceeds to tell us that we are defined by our lack, rather than our bounty and beauty in Christ. A feeling that the enemy uses to steal our identities in Christ and lead us away from the Lord.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we all struggle with feelings of not being good enough, smart enough, thin enough, x-y-z enough everyday.

Some of this shame and our wrestle with “enough-ness” stems directly from lies that we’ve been told by our instantly photoshop-able culture. There’s an influx of subliminal messages about “health” standards (physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise) nearly everywhere we look and the temptation to compare ourselves, then shame ourselves when we fall short of these often unrealistic standards can be all-consuming.

But there’s another type of shame—what many counselors would call “legitimate shame”.

This feeling stems from engaging in activities we know aren’t healthy for us, or don’t fall in line with our morals or beliefs about who God is or who we’ve been created to be, then falling prey to hopelessness when we contrast our imperfections and shortcomings with a perfect God.

We all wrestle with shame (“legitimate” or otherwise) due to our sin and imperfect, fallen decision making and that of others. But, despite what the world or the one trying to destroy us may try to lead us to believe, Yvette’s poignant words have been a constant reminder that to me that as believers we don’t need to sit isolated in either of these types of shame.

Yes, as Romans 3:23 tells us, “we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God” because we’re sinners, but what I constantly need to remind myself is that the Gospel doesn’t end there.

Within our wrestle with sin and shame we have two choices:

1) We can allow our sin, shame, and fears to define and confine us

OR

2) We can trust that Jesus is who He says He is– the loving Savior of the world, sent to reunite us with our Heavenly Father– and trust in the grace He freely offered us on the cross while we were still messy and broken, drowning in the sin that rightfully shamed us. And by accepting, then living in His love, we can allow Him to loosen the bonds of shame that seek to keep us defined by our lack of perfection.

It’s easy (okay, easier) for me to express this a year, some perspective, and several steams after the fact, but as I sat around the TLC table, listening to Yvette speak about the cultural power of the steam bath and the bondage of shame last fall, I bristled internally and thought, There is nooooo wayyyyy I’m ever going to sit in a hot room, physically exposed for an hour, exposing the inmost fears and insecurities of my heart with other women. No. Way. After all, Jesus came so that I wouldn’t have to suffer through hell… and all of that sounds like my personal hell.

So, when my TLC girls asked me to steam with them last November, I’m fairly certain I made the same terrified face I’d made at Native culture night. “Suuuuuuuuure….” I hesitated, using all of my emotional energy to turn my grimace into a semi-excited smile. As my girls went to pack their bags for the steam, I immediately grabbed my phone and fired off the panicked text above to Kitty.

In that moment, the shame and insecurity I felt about my awkward, lanky body and my fearful heart being exposed was fighting to confine me and keep me separated from my girls and my new friend. This illegitimate shame based in insecurity had me sucked so far into my own brain that I couldn’t hear God gently telling me the same thing He’s told me everyday for the nine years I’ve walked with Him:

You are mine. You are loved. You are beautiful. I created you to be uniquely you. You are enough. Do you hear me? You are enough. You have nothing to be ashamed of. I have died for your sins. I have taken on your filth. You are clean. You are pure. You are my beloved bride. You are enough because of who I am.

And that is the truth that I am fighting tooth and nail to keep at the forefront of my mind these days.

Because the truth is we need not be ashamed of exposure and vulnerability– not before God and not before one another– because Christ has seen the depths of our sinful hearts and yet in His infinite love for us He still took on the weight of our sin and died, abolishing the line between us and God that allowed for sin and shame’s power to confine us.

So, brothers and sisters, whatever shame you are fighting today, “legitimate” or otherwise, may you know that in it you are unconditionally loved. May you know in the marrow of your bones that your sin is not what defines you if you have invited Christ to wash you white as snow. 

Your mess is His, and if I may be so bold, your mess can be mine too. You are I are both imperfect and insecure, my dear. We’re in this battle together.

And in that, may we be a generation of Christians who believe so strongly in the redemptive power of Christ that we offer our hearts and minds completely to Him, allowing Him to break the segregation and confines of shame in our lives. May we sit with each other over coffee (or in 200-something degree rooms) and confess our imperfections and insecurities, reveling in the fact that we, the beloved ones of a perfect God, have already been washed clean.