When God doesn’t feel Good: Asia, panic attacks, & Truth

Saying that I freaked out would be putting it mildly.

It was my only Tuesday in Colorado last June. It came on the heels of a sudden move from Alaska, Kevin’s funeral, his sister’s wedding, and a million other life changes crammed into two weeks’ time… As of that night, I had roughly 48 hours to flip my entire wardrobe and organize my life (and heart) before I was slated to board a plane and spend the next month in Southeast Asia.

That night, I dumped all of my winter clothes out of my Alaska/Iowa luggage and drug all of my boxes of summer clothes into the house from the shed.

When my roommate came in to check on my progress, she found me sitting on the floor of my empty soon-to-be bedroom with my backpack and passport, throwing fistfuls of clothes across the room and ugly crying.

“I can’t. I can’t… I can’t… do… it…”

Those were the only words I could choke out for about ten minutes. Finally, I was able to calm down to a point where I could at least spit out the rest of that statement:

“I can’t do it. I can’t go to Asia. I can’t leave. What if someone else dies? What if I’m on the other side of the world. Again.?!”

Kitty listened to me cry for heavens knows how long and if she judged me for blowing my nose into a clean t-shirt I’d dug out of one of my boxes, she didn’t show it. After listening to a considerable amount of crying, she quietly said,

“Kace, how are you seeing Jesus right now?”

My answer left my lips before I could think it through. And as soon as it was outside of me, I wanted nothing more than to take it back, to make it untrue.

“I don’t know if God is Good anymore, Kit.”

My words sent me back into hysterics. “I want to take that back. But I can’t. ‘Cause it’s where I’m at. I don’t know if He’s good. And that scares the *insert explicative here* out of me.” I blubbered. “If I don’t know that? Or if He’s not good?! Then I have nothing. I gave up everything I had to follow Him to Alaska. My job. My security. My community. The most important relationships in my life.¬†And¬†He allowed my worst fear to come true when Kevin died. So if He’s not good? If I can’t trust Him? I’m screwed. And I just don’t think I can follow Someone back across the world that I don’t trust is good… or just don’t trust at all. So, I can’t.”

I don’t remember Kitty’s response to my diatribe other than the sad look in her eyes and her suggestion to spend at least 1 of my next 48 hours with our pastor doing some counseling. (For that wise recommendation and the countless hours she has sat with me while I have cried in the last several seasons, I am forever¬†grateful.)

As painful as it was, I took my tush to counseling the next morning, then I got on that plane to Asia a day later (even though I cried my whole way to the airport and through security). And true to His character, the Lord has slowly changed the trajectory of my life since.

The change has come in strange ways… It didn’t come in a desire to move to Asia as I was afraid it might, or in the multitude of ways I thought He might interrupt my story yet again. No…

The change has been slow and difficult. It’s been a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute reassurance that He is good and that I can trust Him no matter what life brings. When cancer strikes, I can trust Him. When my students are shot, He is still good. When planes go down, He is still sovereign and loving. When I feel weak and alone, He is my steadfast companion. When I have to sit and silently watch my loved ones suffer, He is¬†all of our true¬†comfort. When I am homesick, He is my home. When fear threatens to overtake me, He is my safe place.

Because He is exactly who He says He is. Unconditionally.

~~~

I had a conversation about truth with one of my students a few weeks back. As I sat, feeling a little bit like I was hitting my head against the same brick wall I was talking to, I attempted to poke holes in her life’s truth: “I’ll treat others the way I want to be treated. If they deserve it. And only until they disrespect me…” The caveats in her “truth” made me laugh and roll my eyes. At the point which she surely thought was going to be the end of the conversation, she stubbornly slammed the palm of her hand against my table and said,

“Well, you can disagree, Miss. But that is the truth that I live my life on.”

While it was probably an inappropriate response, I laughed right in her face before I could stop myself.

“Oh, baby, that isn’t truth…” I drawled as I reclined back into my chair. “Truth is True in every situation, for every person. That’s why it’s called Truth… ’cause it’s universal. Truth is always good news for everyone… not just the ones who aren’t pissing you off in the moment. Truth doesn’t have conditions or caveats.¬†

There are only a handful of things in the world that are True and they’re all intertwined: Jesus is Truth. The gospel is Truth. Scripture is Truth. But if you’re building your life’s truths off of that ridiculous statement you just said, you’re in for a world of hurt…”

I leaned back in my chair and resumed my reading while she spent the remainder of my planning period staring at me in silence. She was clearly ticked at my bluntness, but also clearly processing what I’d just said.

As I sat under her glare, I thought about multitude of ways Jesus has shown the gospel to be true in my life this year. Unconditionally.

Christ’s constant salvation, even though I am one royally screwed up, sinful, hardheaded woman.

The redemption He is weaving into my life here and now because of that loving salvation.

The eternal life He offers.

The eternal life He has called so many of my loved ones into.

The comfort of His Spirit as He has done so.

The fact that He conquered death. Let me repeat that, if for no one else but myself. The most pervasive struggle and point of suffering in my heart this last year has already been conquered.

Christ has shown Himself to be perfect strength in my abject weakness.

His grace. (Upon grace upon grace upon grace…)

He has revealed¬†His grace to me every day, increasingly, since that Tuesday in June and I am confident that He is the only thing that keeps me upright on the days when curling up in the fetal position and “waiting out the storm” seem like my best options. And just as He keeps me upright, I know that His grace is also the thing that empowered me to get on that plane last June and travel around the world to see His Truth in action in various tribes, tongues, and nations.

After all, the good news is universal– it is just as good and true in my life and personal need in Colorado as it is in the life of the widow and now single mother of 6 that I ate lunch with in Thailand. Or in the life of sweet Joshua, the little boy I took out to dinner from his¬†orphanage who spent the whole time chanting, “I want a mommy and a daddy,” over and over again in English as we ate on the steps of the market. The gospel is good news in all three of our situations.¬†We all have hope because of who Christ is and what He has done.

The Gospel is only Good because He is.

The Gospel is only true because He, Himself is faithful and true. 

No conditions, no caveats. Only absolute Truth, grace, and love in every circumstance.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

(Ephesians 3:14-19)

To love a murderer on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, & every day after

Working at the Denver Street School has ruined me for murderers: I’ve come to realize I love them and it regularly breaks my heart.

A few years back, my vice-principal and I started¬†a running text chain. Some days it’s a mix of teaching memes and funny student quotes, but there¬†are other days where we somberly exchange¬†news articles with headlines written about our¬†students.

This year alone we’ve exchanged two articles.¬†The first explained that a prior student had been arrested for killing his three-month old daughter (accidentally or not, we’re still not sure). The second was a list of criminal charges a student from two years ago is facing. As I write this, he is awaiting arraignment for nine felony charges– including first-degree murder, first-, second-, and third-degree assault, and menacing with a deadly weapon, among others.

Fuller and my weird text chain began in 2014¬†with information regarding the murder of one of our then-current students. It was reinstated four months after Johnny’s death when we exchanged news articles¬†about the¬†arrest of another then-current student who had tried meth, then proceeded to attempt to kill a police officer while under the influence.

I’m far from a news junkie, but when I see my kiddos’ faces on news channels or in my Facebook feed, I can’t help but sit enveloped in the articles and subsequent comments from the public.

“Let him burn in hell.”

“Public execution. Maybe even firing squad.”

“A disgrace.”

“A waste of space.”

These are the words that strangers have said about my students, my babies.

And every. single. time. that I’ve gotten sucked into the wormhole of comments from the public, I’ve sat, shaking as¬†I¬†read them¬†through tears.

In those moments, I know I’m crying for my students, for their victims, for each of the families and the various communities involved in the incident. I cry because I don’t understand how my students have come to make the choices they’ve made. And no matter how hard I try, I know I’ll never be able to reconcile the reality of the brokenness of this world in my heart.

But just as I’ve cried tears of sadness, I’ve also¬†screamed in rage. In those moments I’m unbelievably angry at my students for what they’ve done, for who they’ve allowed themselves to become. As time progresses, that¬†anger¬†subsides though, often leaving my heart puzzled.

The days go on, but at least for a little while my students’ faces stay in my news feed attached to those horrid headlines; follow-up articles are published, and with them, more horrid comments from people whom I would argue need better hobbies.

As I scroll through the articles and read the death threats and aggressive comments about the students I love, every ounce of me wants to scream back,

“You don’t know them! You don’t see their struggles! You don’t know the abuse they’ve suffered at home, the pain they carry in their hearts, or the ways they have been set up to fail in this world since they were in their mother’s wombs!”¬†

Let me be clear.

I have no desire to make excuses for my students or their actions, but in those moments I feel trapped between a rock and a hard place– between the seemingly reasonable expectations of human decency and the calling to love and defend the students Jesus has placed in my care.

Thus, in those moments of blinding, complex sorrow and rage, I sit, confused. Feeling a little bit helpless. Saddened by the fact that the only thing I can do is pray and schedule a visit at the county jail to see the students I love.

Because that’s just it. I love my kids. I will love my kids no matter what they do, no matter who they become. And I wish I could convince the rest of the world to do so as well.

Maybe I’m blind or naive, but those students? The ones in Fuller and my text-chain, in your Facebook feed? They’re human. They’re kids¬†I’ve played football with at lunch. I’ve read their stories in my English classes– stories where their “fictional characters” struggle to be men and women of character in gang and drug infested worlds, in “fictional settings” that are¬†strikingly similar to those of their author’s.

I’ve taken these students on leadership retreats to the mountains. I’ve watched them build snowmen and sled and giggle like little kids.¬†I’ve watched them cry out of frustration when they can’t figure out their math homework and literally¬†run screaming down the halls with excitement when they pass a test.

These young people who have made horrid choices– either one incidentally or as a string of other poor choices– these people who have taken another’s life?

They’re young men and women I honestly trust with mine.

They’re sweet and goofy; they’re so much smarter than the choices they’ve made or the stigmas the world placed on them before (or after) they ended up in the orange jumpsuits they now wear.

It’s because of this that I’ve spent several of my planning periods this year¬†tracking some of my favorite former students through the Colorado judicial system. Last week as I waited for the Denver county inmate search website to load, a meme popped up in that text chain, and I couldn’t help but laugh at just how weird this job of mine is.

As I stared at the slowly loading page, the comments from old news articles flashed through my mind, as did this old snapchat– a picture of the student I was trying to locate–

IMG_5209

In that moment, I glanced around my empty classroom, then down at the Bible on my desk and I was reminded that loving murderers probably isn’t a common aspect of most people’s jobs; in fact, outside of DSS, it’s probably rather rare. And outside of the relationships with Jesus that our school is built upon, I doubt that it’s possible.

But isn’t that just it?

Jesus had a heart for murderers.¬†That’s what Easter is about.

The fact that King of the Universe came down to save His people from themselves and the sin that entangles them even though we couldn’t deserve it less.

Our perfect, benevolent Jesus came to rescue His people in love and restore them to relationship with the Father, even though they shouted, “Let Him be crucified!”, “I do not know Him!”, and “Do not release Him, the innocent, but Barabbas, the robber!”¬†just days earlier.

Jesus came to save us even though we shout those words at Him and at each other with our lips, actions, and inactions every day.

We are murderers.

Each and every one of us.

And if we refuse to acknowledge that truth in our pride or arrogance, our own virtue or religiousity, then I firmly believe that we’ll miss out on the heart of Jesus.

If we can’t look at our sin, our own capability and guilt of murder against our King– and those created in His image– then we are in danger of missing so much of the beauty of Jesus and what He has done for us, even though we are so undeserving.

May we become a people who look upon the crucifix with a more full understanding of our sin, so that we might relish in the goodness and love of the truth that followed three days later– the words that continue to shake me to my core this morning:¬†“He is not here; Christ has risen, just as He said He would.” (Matthew 28:6)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

(Romans 5:6-8)

 

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 mudРa 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 heartРthe 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)

 

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 needРthe blood of Jesus. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

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)РTrial 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)

How deep is Your love?

I took the summer “off” from writing. My reasoning¬†was complicated:

1) ¬†Most days I honestly didn’t¬†have¬†words to articulate the mixed bag of hope/ pain/ joy/ nausea/ excitement/¬†roller-coaster-y grief¬†that my heart had become¬†as I transitioned from Alaska to Iowa to Colorado to (and through) Asia and back again.

2) Traveling through 18 homes / hotels in 5 countries and 7 states in 2 1/2 months felt exactly like the run-on sentence that this is; it was exhausting. Plus, that much transition didn’t exactly lend to a stable internet connection or quiet writing space.

3) And probably most intentionally, my absence from writing was due to the fact that I had the glorious opportunity to stop analyzing the world around me for a while and¬†simply experience the Lord’s beauty in it first hand.

And experience it to the fullest, I did.

I now know what it’s like to run through knee deep flood waters in a Cambodian city late at night shouting, “We’re on a mission! We’re gonna die…” all while laughing hysterically. Our insane laughter was partially¬†because we were being splashed by motos (barely) passing us with a foot margin and partially because I was nervous about stepping onto a downed power line in the murky water below me and electrocuting myself to death.

That night as lightening crackled in the sky overhead, I ran through the streets of Phnom Penh with my co-leader and one of our 16-year old students. Our student had heard the Lord ask him to donate his guitar and book of worship music to a college-age sister-in-Christ (whom he had met only once) so she could start a worship school in a country where only 1% of the population knows Christ; he¬†was thrilled that the Lord had called him to partner with her endeavor and couldn’t even wait until morning to selflessly give up his prized possession.

We arrived at her apartment sopping wet that night and stood in the rain, throwing pebbles at her window, screaming, “Ravii! Ravii come to the window! It’s the Alaskans! Come down! We have a gift for you!” as though we were in a movie or something. Eventually she emerged from the front door and stood with her jaw dropped¬†as my student presented her with the guitar and sheet music. “God is good,” were the only words she said. I stood back¬†and smiled¬†as she stared at the guitar in her hands, saying those words over and over and over again.

IMG_5909I now know the depth of laughter that can cross language barriers when you’ve been¬†befriended by a tiny first grade Thai girl who has chosen you to color with her on¬†the sidelines of her friends’ game of tag because her club foot doesn’t allow her to run. Conversely, I know how absolutely hopeless it feels to stare into her deep brown eyes and¬†pray for her foot to be miraculously healed, only to see that God clearly has other plans for her. At least, for the time being.

This summer the Lord turned strangers on cross-country¬†flights into new friends. He blessed me with the opportunity to hear their stories of courage and redemption as they’ve escaped realities of¬†war I don’t even want to imagine.

There were nights where I sat silently, holding¬†three different women– all of whom are incredibly dear to my heart– as they cried and grappled with the unexpected death of family members. There simply aren’t words in those situations, no matter how frequently they come your way.

IMG_5880Throughout June I prayed as I stood in the Indian ocean, above the border walls of “closed” countries, in school yards, in markets, and under surging waterfalls. In those moments I heard the Lord speak louder¬†than ever before. But I’ve also been face down on the floor, begging Him to speak and heard nothing but silence in return.

The list of things I saw the Lord do this summer seems infinite. While I wish with everything in me that I could relay those stories to those of you reading this… I simply can’t.

There aren’t enough words in the English language for me to explain just how deep and powerful the Love of Jesus has proven itself to be in my life; there aren’t words to do the glory of the Lord justice.

The best way I can explain these last few months (or really, this last year) is to say that adventuring in the benevolent affection of the Father for any period of time is a lot like what I would imagine scuba¬†diving to the¬†deepest depths of the sea to be. There are things down there that don’t (and won’t) make sense to those who have only ever swam near the shoreline or sat in the ocean in a boat.

In my imagination and this metaphor there are fish with lights hanging off of their faces Finding-Nemo-style and majestic unnamed organisms¬†few people have¬†ever seen. Similarly, in reality, there is spiritual battle and victory in Christ, pain and miraculous healing that does take place (even if I’m not the one to see it), and abundantly more grace than I could ever convey.

I understand that as I write this, my words could come off arrogantly, but please know that is not my heart. I long for you to don your own scuba gear and dive into the deep, dark¬†metaphorical waters and¬†explore them with the Lord so you too can see and experience the things mere words cannot explain. For those types of experiences aren’t likely to happen in our comfort zones where we feel safe or from boats where can see the shore.

The risk associated with following the Lord to unfamiliar, deep, dark¬†places is great– regardless of what that looks like for you.¬†But I dare say the risk of not going, of being lulled into complacency and comfort, or “staying put” because of fear, is much greater.¬†

Because yes, adventure is out there, but adventure for the sake of itself is not the point.

The ‘point’ can be found only in Jesus’ Love and it is beyond what my heart can comprehend or my brain can explain. All I know is that we begin to discover the depths of Christ’s love when we’re willing to go to the deep places where we feel like our faith may fail.

(In fact, your faith likely will fail. Mine did, more times than I would ever care to admit. Like the night before I boarded the plane to Asia when I dumped everything I owned on the floor of the Yarrow House¬†and bawled, asking God the scariest series of questions I’ve ever asked in my life.¬†Alas, that is a story for another time…)

But our loving Abba-Father? Our Jesus? He will never fail you.

His love only deepens, the further you dive in.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

(Ephesians 3:14-21)

But, God

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show us the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”¬†

(Ephesians 2:1-8)

I don’t have the eloquent words I wish I had right about now; all I have is a sleep deprived brain and the choked up feeling in the back of my throat that so often accompanies grief. Well, that and so many wishes desperately longing to be fulfilled in my heart.

Part of me wishes God’s plan for the last week was different, and yet because He has taught me to deeply rest¬†in the beauty of His sovereignty, I don’t.

But that doesn’t stop me from wishing I wouldn’t have had to stand next to my best friend yesterday as we buried her little brother. But we did. Side by side, struggling to form the words of the hymns being sung around us and with shovels in our hands, we did. And I doubt either of us have ever done anything more difficult in our lives.

I wish Kevin wouldn’t have gone to be with Jesus just weeks before his sister’s wedding, but in God’s perfect timing, he did.

I wish I could take the pain from my second family’s heart, but all we can do is cry and laugh and question and praise our sweet Jesus late into the night together.

I wish the message telling me Kevin was gone wouldn’t have ever come through my phone at midnight in Alaska; I wish the Lord would’ve used another means to permanently transition me out of the village He had graciously allowed me to fall in love with over the last year.

I wish I would’ve had more than 12 hours notice that I would be packing everything I owned and moving 4,000 miles.

I wish I could’ve said proper goodbyes to my neighbors and teammates, youth group kids, students, and friends in Port Alsworth, but I praise God for the small group that was able to meet me at my bush plane to quickly pray over me as the Lord rushed me away from my home.

I wish I didn’t have to leave so many homes so frequently. Yet within this, God continues to remind me that my Home is not here; my home has never been in Colorado, Alaska, or Iowa– even though my coffee pot and clothes have now lived in all of those places in the last year.

In all of the pain and vertigo of the last five days, He has been the One to comfort and strengthen each of us, and I know because I know because I know He will continue to do so.

I don’t understand any of the events of the last week or the weeks to come; but God does. My line of sight and perspective is limited, but His is not.

We mourn the loss of our brother and our friend, but because of what Christ did for us on the cross and Kevin’s acceptance and love for Him, we know we’ll see Kev again. This week, we’ve grieved over the timing of our loss, but the Lord is reminding us that it has been Kevin’s gain. Just as he is preparing for the wedding feast for the Bride of Christ, we prepare for a wedding feast. And oh, his sister’s wedding next week will be so full of Jesus and His glory.

I will openly admit that there is a hurricane of transition and grief raging in my heart, but in this, God is so much more than a still, small voice and oh, is He good. He is good now in the raw pain and mess, and everything in me needs to proclaim His nearness to make it through the day.

Praise the One who died to bring us near to our Father– our comforter, the lover of our souls. Praise You, Jesus– the one who brought us out of the darkness of life separated from Him and into His glorious light. Praise You, for bringing us to life and seating us with You in the high heavenly places.

Siblings

Praise You for seating our little brother with You and showing those of us here on earth the immeasurable depths of Your grace and kindness in our loss.

“But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace”

(Ephesians 2:13)