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.”
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.
“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.
“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
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 yetin 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.
“Woah… Hey… How was your day?” My friend probably could’ve spared herself the question. I’m fairly certain the glazed over, crazy lady look in my eyes was a dead give away that today was, well… a day.
I let my backpack slide off my shoulder and onto the floor as I stared vacantly at my feet, trying to find the words to articulate how my day was.
Nothing seemed right.
Saying, “Good! My toughest group of kids finally fell in love with our novel and we read forty pages in class!” seemed like a really out of sorts introduction to the sentence that would’ve followed it: “Oh, and before 9 AM, I saw a bullet hole in one of my student’s legs from where he was shot this weekend.” Or, I suppose I could’ve said, “My day was a mixed bag, but thankfully I escaped to Cork & Coffee after school to lesson plan. Things had just calmed down when I overheard an altercation down the street and then had a man run toward me shouting, ‘Did you see a guy in a black hoodie?! He just stabbed someone!’ moments before an ambulance pulled up to take the victim to the hospital. So, that was weird.”
But to simply say that my day was a mixed bag would also graze over the fact that I spent two different passing periods today comforting various girls whose 17 year old cousin/friend/ex-boyfriend had been shot and killed late last week… And each of those tender moments had a fairly significant impact on the way my day had gone, so excluding them feels weird.
So, how was my day? Chaotic? But somehow, not really. In fact, it was a fairly orderly day by DSS standards.
Good? Meh. I wouldn’t go that far.
Hard? Well, yes and no. After all, I’m far more “used to” (or rather desensitized to) gunshot wounds and stabbings than I probably should be.
As I struggled for words to explain the rough edges of my day, it hit me that I honestly don’t have room to speak negatively about the way today went either. I mean, we made great strides in English; for the first time in my teaching career my kids didn’t want to stop reading AND they even wrote a two paragraph summary without gasping and splaying themselves against my classroom wall in disbelief that I could ask them to do such a thing. (You may think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. The wall splaying really, truly happened last Tuesday.) Oh, and my college and career guest speaker this morning? He was a hit! (Granted, his first few words when he walked into my classroom this morning were, “Uh, I think I just saw a drug deal go down in the parking lot across the street…” But such is Street School life.) Then there’s the fact that my art students crushed their assignment for the day and a few even stayed after school to continue their work. So. many. good things happened today in the academic realm. Yet that doesn’t negate the pain in my heart that caused my wide-eyed stare.
Thus, I return to my friend’s question: how was my day? After a few hours of trying to find words to explain the jumble that is my short-term memory, I’m essentially still without a verdict. Maybe that’s because I don’t think there’s a word in the English language that aptly describes what life as a Street School teacher is (or isn’t) or how our days with our students go.
The only way I can put it is that being back at the Street School is “all the things”; it’s academic celebrations with tears sprinkled throughout, bookended by the agonizing realities of gang warfare and darkness that my students come from each morning and return to each afternoon. Yet somehow it’s all covered in the glorious Hope of Christ that things can be different if my students come to Him. It’s weird, but it’s beautiful in the same breath.
Unlike most things I write, this post doesn’t contain a lesson from Jesus or a nice tied together ending. At least, not yet. And although it most certainly exists within the reality of my job, I swear I don’t write this for shock value.
No, I’m writing to give you a window into the reality of my students’ lives and to ask you to partner with me this year in prayer. Theirs is a reality that exists right within the heart of Denver and every city like it. A reality that can be found mere houses or blocks away from where the majority of you are reading this in your quiet, violence-free homes on the outskirts of suburbia. That quiet? That end-of-the-day peace that you’re probably experiencing right now? That is not the reality for many of my students. But oh, how I long for that to change.
So would you join me and our mildly shell-shocked Street School staff as we enter back into our students’ lives and pray for and with them this school year?
Would you join us in praying for:
Opportunities to share the gospel with our students. Very few of them would consider Christ to be the Lord of their lives, and even fewer have heard of the way He loves them with His “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (The Jesus Storybook Bible). Pray that our students would be open to His Love and Truth. Pray that they would allow themselves to be swept off their feet by the sweet Savior Who has already come for them.
The Peace of Christ to reign in this city. Unless you’re weird like me and spend your free time reading graffiti on highway underpasses, it’s easy to miss the fact that there’s a thriving gang culture here in Denver. Due to a handful of recent events within a few local gangs, there has been a flare up of violence in our city. Pray that redemption and peace would prevail over retaliation. Pray for my students to have an iota of forethought and not get themselves involved in risky or violent situations.
Spiritual eyes for our staff to see what really matters. Sometimes that really, truly means English homework and sometimes that means setting aside our lesson plans and engaging in soul care instead of vocabulary lists. Pray that we, as a staff, would be loving, intentional, and wise in all of our interactions with our students.
I’m eternally grateful for the love, prayers, and support you’ve covered me in these last few years as I’ve done life everywhere from the inner city of Denver to the very ends of the earth. As I seem to say at the beginning of every school year, I know the Lord is going to do miraculous, mind-boggling, earth shattering things this year. He has always been faithful to exceed even my biggest expectations for a school year and He has graciously called all of us to be a part of His plan.
Thank you in advance for joining in on what Jesus is doing in this beautiful city through prayer.
May the glory be to God– in the midst of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this school year.
My mind and heart have been at war Monday through Friday at approximately 6:45 am for the last three weeks.
You see, about five minutes into my morning drive to work, I have a choice to make: I could merge right, onto the I-70 on-ramp and head to Denver International Airport, or I could continue driving south down Wadsworth Boulevard to my classroom. Every morning thus far I’ve made the sane choice; I’ve gripped my coffee cup, exhaled, and driven past that on-ramp to the Street School.
But as I drive past the interstate and inevitably get stuck at the traffic light just past the on-ramp, I let the same daydream unfold in my mind every morning. In it I’m whipping my car around in traffic. I’m racing home, throwing everything I can fit into my biggest suitcase, throwing said suitcase into my car, peeling out of my driveway, and merging onto that on-ramp on my way back down the street. Forty-some minutes later in this fantasy, I’m abandoning my car in the departure lane at DIA, running to the ticket counter, and breathlessly requesting a ticket for the first flight I can catch to Alaska.
It’s become an everyday, conscious decision not to give in to my fantasies, pull onto that on-ramp, and spontaneously fly back to the little Alaskan village that captured my heart while simultaneously undoing everything about who I thought I was.
In all the times I’ve moved and all the places I’ve lived, I never really understood homesickness. In Alaska, I often said I was “people-sick”. I missed the people who held my heart here in Colorado– my family, my church, my DSS students– but I rarely missed the hubbub of city life or the bizarre-o hipster culture of Denver that I slide back into all too easily when I’m here.
But this homesickness for Alaska? It’s unshakeable. I miss my new-found best friends and my Gospel Community. The laid back culture. The “it’ll probably be fine” attitude that somehow seamlessly meshes with the tough Alaskan ingenuity that is essential for survival in the bush. I miss trail running in the mountains and having coffee with Jesus on the pebble beach in my backyard in the morning. I miss the simplicity of life and the canned moose that lined my pantry. I miss flying as pilot-in-command and as a passenger whenever mail runs to the next village down needed to be done…
This homesickness isn’t mild– no, it truly feels like an illness that started in my heart, infected my blood, and has made its way to my bones. In the hyperbolic metaphor and picture in my mind, there’s a WebMD site listing the side effects of my disease. It reads:
Homesickness is a disease plaguing disheveled in-transition missionaries, expats, and school-age summer campers alike. There is no known cure for homesickness, other than to “rub some dirt on it” and “suck it up”.
Symptoms can include:
Staring at the roundtrip ticket’s worth of frequent flier miles in your Alaska Airlines account far too often.
All too realistic dreams in which you’re back in your little village. (These dreams may lead you to wake up in your actual location and irrationally sob into your pillow.)
Sensory overload leading to intense introversion…leading to more daydreaming. [Are you sensing a theme here yet?]
Struggling not to reminisce while having coffee with Jesus in your classroom instead of on the beach. (This may also lead to sobbing… It seems to depend on the day.)
Recalling only the beautiful events that occurred while living somewhere– not the situations that almost killed you.
Oh. And in some incredibly severe cases, death.
Yes, like I said, the metaphor is hyperbolic. But oh, does it seem to be a little less-than so some days.
Logically, I know I’m not going to die from this bout of homesickness, but sometimes the pain that shoots through my heart as I pass that on-ramp makes me wonder…
Why am I still so attached to the little one-square-mile of tundra in the scenic middle of nowhere called Port Alsworth and it’s two hundred inhabitants? Is this pain a sign that I will one day return to the Alaskan bush? Will this inability to keep my head out of the clouds lead me back behind a yok and into the sky as a missionary pilot someday? Will the dreams (day or night alike) ever stop? Will the jarring sense of transition ever quit? Or am I forever doomed to feel homesick and homeless all at the same time?
As I’ve sat at that stoplight morning after morning, wrestling to keep my steering wheel straight and my mind off the millions of questions buzzing in my brain, the Lord has continuously led my thoughts back to the book of Exodus. After all, what is Exodus if it’s not a story of being led into the wilderness and back out again?
As I sat, reading in the corner of one of my favorite coffee shops Sunday morning, it was as if for the first time in months, my homesick/daydream-y brain was able to make sense of scripture.
In the second chapter of Exodus, Moses has not yet come to save the Israelites from their famous slavery. In fact, he hasn’t even been called to “ministry” yet. Life is simply normal and hard, and both Moses and the people of Israel are feeling the weight of their circumstances.
“During [the days of the Israelite’s captivity in Egypt], the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-25)
I can only imagine the Israelites were homesick. They wanted their old way of life back; they wanted normalcy and freedom. They groaned and cried out to God and scripture reminds us that He heard them. He remembered them in the midst of their sorrow and wrestling. He sawthem. And above all, He knew what He was going to do with and through every single circumstance and trial.
As I read and reread those verses, oh, how my perspective on homesickness shifted. When I took the time to consider that in the midst of my wrestling and sadness, I am seen and loved and remembered by the Most High God… That He is the same God who knew and still knows what He is going to do in the lives of all of his children– in the lives of the Israelites thousands of years ago and in my life now in 2016 and beyond… It was a realization that somehow changed everything.
Sure, my heart is still hyper-aware that it doesn’t belong in Colorado, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it belongs in Alaska either… In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were created for another world.”
I wasn’t created for Alaska or Colorado; I wasn’t created for this world anymore than you were. I was created to be with the One who hears me senselessly crying alone in my classroom when no one else does. I was created to be in perfect union with the God of my Fathers– the One Who remembers His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and makes good on them daily, thousands of years after their deaths.
In reality I know I’m not homesick for Alaska, even though I am. (What a fickle heart I have.) No, I’m homesick for my Jesus and for heaven– for that coming world where the perfection of Christ reigns and where I will be with Him.
The scribbles in my journal from that little Denver coffee shop are simple (and poorly punctuated, but I digress).
My heart longs for you, alone, sweet Jesus. For Your stability. For my one true Home. To be in the presence of Your fullness. And I know that day will come because You are faithful and true. You are making all things new. And as it says in Exodus 2:25, You know. You know the depths of my conflicted heart, but also the complete and utter goodness of Your unfolding plan.
I simply need to breathe through the illness and trust the words I so often say to my students in my best church lady voice… ‘Jesus knows, child…. Jesus knows…’ and ‘You probably won’t die…’
Because those promises are enough. Because You are enough. No matter the circumstances or my location.”
There’s something about standing at the summit of a mountain and screaming with joy that makes all the agony of the ascent worth 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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.”
“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).”
I hated the old wooden pews in my family’s uber traditional Mexican church growing up. If I think about them too long, I can still feel the haunting pain in my tush incurred by sitting on those benches for hours during Sunday service.
By the time we sat in those pews, my family had broken away from their formal Catholic upbringing and had somehow made their way to what I can only describe as a small, “free-form” congregation of believers in our hometown. The pastor’s teaching was remarkable—I knew that even as a child—but the Sunday sermon was only a small part of the three-hour service.
There was worship and “specials”, communion and flag twirling, praise dancing and scripture reading, and after all that was said and done, and the message had been delivered, anyone and their mom was given the opportunity to take the mic and share their testimony.
“What is the Lord doing in your life right now?” A deacon would ask as hand after hand would wave in the air, motioning for the microphone. By this point, I was usually slumped down in my pew, sitting on my hands, praying that the feeling would come back to my rear end. Testimony time seemed like torture because ohhhh can sweet old abuelitas and tias talk and tell stories for days…
In all honesty, I don’t remember any of those stories about God’s goodness. I was young and ignorantly uninterested, solely focused on trying to escape the wooden torture devices we sat on. As my cousins and cousin’s cousins stood to speak, my mind wandered to the green chili smothered feast we would eat if we ever made it out of that sanctuary.
If you were to fast forward roughly fifteen years, you would’ve found me in a similar setting this weekend at Tanalian’s Spring Family Conference. (But praise the Lord our little village church has chairs instead of those horrific wooden benches…)
A friend of mine stood at the podium the first night of the conference and read Revelation 12 to a room of two hundred-some Alaskans–
“Now a war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for their loved their lives not even unto death.’” (Revelation 12:7-12)
When he was done reading, he looked up and said, “We have conference speakers this weekend, but our hope is that the majority of the speaking will be done by you. No one here will negate that Southwestern Alaska is dark. Some of you came here from villages where you’re the only Christians or where there are other believers but no pastor or church… This weekend as we gather, we long for you to be fed, but also hope you’ll beat back the darkness by sharing your testimony. We want to hear what the Lord is doing throughout Alaska; for the darkness has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb and and will continue to be by the word our testimony.”
Just like that, there was a steady stream of believers from all different ages and backgrounds who took the podium and shared some of the most powerful testimonies I’ve ever heard.
Some spoke in English and some in Yup’ik (the predominate Native language of our region). When simple words couldn’t express what needed to be said, songs sung with an acoustic guitar said what individuals couldn’t manage to. It was so powerful that every ounce of emotion in my body caught in the back of my throat and for once in my life I couldn’t even cry.
One man, a doctor in the village of Dillingham, stood before us and softly said, “I have pictures of my nephew being baptized in that bay, just out that window… He went home from here and later died a violent death. It was horrible. It was hard. But because of Jesus, we have hope. Hope changes things. Prayer changes things. Let us not be afraid to pray for people. Our family has confidence and hope that my nephew is with God because someone, somewhere wasn’t afraid to pray with him, just once, and that turned into so much more. Let us be a people who pray. Let us pray for revival in our villages.”
The mother of one of my students followed him at the microphone, speaking between heavy sobs. “Our people are wounded. Deep. Deep down. So deep. There wounds we have caused ourselves and generational wounds on top of those. But I’m here at this conference and I’m standing here now because I want our people to get better. I want so badly for them to know Jesus and be free from the anger, shame, scorn, devastation, lies, alcoholism, denial, fear, and drug abuse that has kept them captive for too long. Pray for revival in the ‘up-river’ people; pray for our people.”
I sat and watched, my momma-heart bubbling with pride, as my TLC students took the mic, reading scripture and rejoicing in the freedom and new lives they have found in Christ this year.
I listened with my jaw dropped as a woman, who I knew to be a recently active persecutor of the church several villages down, stood and publicly apologized for the way she had treated the believers in her village. “I was wrong, I see that now. I just want to follow Jesus. I just want my kids to read the Bible and know God’s Word…”
The testimonies and pleas for prayer went on for hours each day and it was glorious.
As if she could read my mind, my neighbor learned over and poked me in the ribs Sunday morning, smiled, and said, “It’s just like being in Mexican church, huh?”
“It’s just like home.” I laughed out in a whisper. “These people, they’re family… But thank God we don’t have those old school pews that makes your tush fall asleep. These chairs make testimony time so much more enjoyable.”
Would you join our family here in Alaska and pray for revival?
Pray that people would be awakened to the beauty of the Lord in our villages.
Pray for strength and grace for our isolated and persecuted brothers and sisters.
Pray that the church would be burning to tell the world of the hope that we have because of who Christ is and what He has done for us.
Pray we would live out of the truth of Revelation 12—that we can beat back the darkness by the power of our testimony. And that the testimonies we hear would stir us to a deeper love for Jesus, moving us to action to pursue those living in the darkness that settles in where there is a void of His light.