How do you decorate gang warfare for Christmas?

Last Christmas was a mess— a really dark, emotional mess.

On the morning of December 10th I made great plans to sweep the brokenness and messiness of holiday life under a rug, slap a tree on top of it all, and have a Merry-freaking-Christmas. My students and I were going to be happy and we were going to enjoy Christmas, dang it! (Can you see the crazy, plastered smile on my face? No? Just ask one of my DSS girls… I’m sure they can imitate it pretty well given how many times they’ve seen my crazy-teacher-eyes around the holidays over the years.)

The very same day that I made this proclamation of well intentioned, forced joy, my Christmas dreams were crushed by the murder of one of my students.

Losing Johnny broke me, and I subsequently kinda gave up on Christmas for a while last year. I battled between depression, and the urge to fight my feelings and simply “fix” said depression. I so badly wanted Christmas cookies and cheerful music to fix everything like it always seemed to in those stupid ABC Family Christmas movies. So, I tried to force a few cheerful traditions as an attempt to pull myself out of the darkness and pain. But the truth was, while they distracted me temporarily, none of those things could fix my aching heart or the hearts of the students around me. If anything, my inability to fix the situation just shoved me further into an emotional meltdown.

I'm not even kidding you; Christmas was so broken last year that even my Christmas cookies came out in pieces.
I’m not even kidding you; Christmas was so broken last year that even my Christmas cookies came out looking like a mess.

A year later, life looks drastically different in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (Can I get a hallelujah?!)

But even now, twelve months and twenty-five hundred miles removed from the events of last Christmas season, my heart still hurts. It hurts because I still don’t know how to appropriately grieve the death of an eighteen year old who was trying to turn his life around. (And I feel stupid– like after a year of wrestling with the consequences and darkness of gang warfare, I should have this figured out…)

My heart hurts because even in the middle of nowhere, I’ve got a lot of really real crap going on in my heart, and I know you probably do too.

It’s the holidays, and therefore I’m dealing with my annual child-of-divorce, “I’m-going-to-have-to-pick-which-side-of-the-family-to-disappoint-on-Christmas” struggle. I’m wrestling with a deep, selfish desire to avoid the conflict and pain I know I’ll be confronted with upon my return to Denver. I’m struggling to reconcile the fact that when I leave this village and return to the safe arms of my loved ones in three weeks, I’ll be sending my TLC students back to unsafe spaces to fend off the darkness on their own for a month.

I know I’m not alone in the mess. There are real things that we’re all struggling with, and newsflash: the struggles (at least my struggles) don’t ever seem to care whether it’s Christmas time or the middle of July.

Within these weird struggles of life I’m left with a lot of questions. Questions like:

If the pain of losing Johnny isn’t going to go away, even a year later, how do I decorate gang warfare for Christmas? How do I hide the pain that it has brought to my Street School family, or the unrelated pain that I’m feeling in my heart because of family struggles and relational breakdown? Should I even try to hide it at all?

Should I try to smother my heartbreak by wrapping it in Christmas lights and pretending that it doesn’t exist? That seems to be close to how the world tells me I should handle this internal battle, yet that “solution” doesn’t sit right in my soul…

But I think this is what we, as Christians, feel like we have to do.

Within the church we feel this need to be perfect, especially around the holidays. But I, for one, can’t be perfect; I’m completely incapable of it. And I’m sick of feeling like there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be real.

Yet even within my craving for authenticity, I still hesitate to bring up the places I’m struggling. After all, I don’t want to be the one to ruin someone else’s perceived holiday perfection with my mess. None of us want to be the broken, hurting ones in the midst of a season that seems to be the antithesis of such behavior.

There isn’t space for real life or real pain in the way our culture does Christmas. I think that’s such a shame because I’m pretty sure God doesn’t have His calendar divided into “times that are appropriate to discuss hard things” and “times that are to be devoted only to the drinking of hot chocolate, wearing trendy/ugly sweaters, and listening to Michael Buble’s Christmas album in the car”.

No. In His calendar, there is a time of longing for, and a time of receiving Jesus through His birth.

And friends, this season—advent—is that season of longing.

We all have really deep longings that match our questions and pain, and advent should be a season, just like any other, where we can express those within the safety of the church without someone trying to sweep us under the rug and shove a shiny Christmas tree on top of us and our problems.

Advent is a season devoted to waiting and wrestling, longing and hoping. It was not created to be a season devoted to aesthetic perfection.

This world isn’t perfect; I don’t think you need a church calendar to tell you that. But I think that it’s okay to let advent be a season of recognizing just how broken this world is. It’s okay to talk about the imperfections in our lives, because through acknowledging them, we can more deeply acknowledge our need for Christ and His coming–for the renewal that only He could bring to our brokenness, both through His birth in that manger two thousand years ago and in His someday second coming.

This advent and Christmas season, I pray that the church will be a people who make space for the brokenness (and broken people) in our lives, knowing that Christ has done the same for humanity. May we be a people who speak truth and light into the dark, complicated places of our lives, together. And as we wrestle with our brokenness and as creation groans, may we see Hope within poor circumstance, rather than try to forget that brokenness exists.

May we look to the soon-coming Christ, the reason for our confidence and Hope for redemption, deeply knowing that because of what He has done for us in His birth, death, and resurrection, that our sufferings will be lifted one day, for He is making all things new.

May we be a people that sees the Light in the darkness, acknowledging both, but embracing the truth that Jesus came to be the light that could never be extinguished.
As I light the advent candles in my home, know that I will always light them for you too, Johnny, just like we did in La Alma Park last December at your candlelight vigil. You are not forgotten. You never could be; you simply shined too brightly with that goofy smile of yours. Thank you for teaching so many of us what Light can look like in abject darkness.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has Light shone.”

(Isaiah 9:2)

Obedience, even unto death

Two weekends ago I spent my Saturday carefully planting the beautiful plants that I’ve had growing in our dining room since March. My garden this year had grown to be my pride and joy.

I watered it and rotated every pot, every morning to ensure each plant was getting sun in the fickle Colorado spring. I replanted things when they got crowded. But eventually my vegetables got to a point where they simply needed to move into new soil in the great outdoors. I dutifully checked the long-term weather forecast and saw nothing but sun and rain for the foreseeable future. Seemingly the perfect time to plant.

And so, I tilled the soil and planted everything in the cute little garden plot in our yard.

For a week, everything flourished. My veggies seemed happy with the rain and sun and their new room.

garden

And then freaking Colorado weather happened and last Saturday a slushy snow storm blew through. Tuesday night, I stood by the garden fence and surveyed my mostly smushed, dead garden and dramatically thought: Seems about right.

It seems about right because there’s so much about the end of this season that simply feels like a death has occurred, or rather is occurring. Slowly.

My sweet high school girls whom I have spent months (with some, years) winning over, have spontaneously turned into waterfalls in the last week. They hug me goodbye at the end of classes and school days with tears in their eyes because we both know that I won’t be at DSS for much longer.

My heart has felt like it’s shattering into a million pieces as I’ve slowly begun to pack up my classroom, write graduation speeches for kids I’ve been with for four plus years, and sign yearbooks urging kids to follow Jesus… and this blog to keep in touch. (Hashtag: Shameless plugs. Oh well.)

But work isn’t the only place where I feel death occurring.

No. I feel death sneaking into the depths of my heart when I look at my best friends, my roommates, and my wonderful church. When I hear about the weddings that I’ll be missing while in Alaska or see the bumps that I know will bear babies when I’m 2,500 miles away.

These are the moments when I feel death in the midst of such happiness and newness.

It sounds obnoxiously dramatic, I know. But it is death because with each of these wonderful life giving sights or event invitations, I have to die to myself.

I have to die to my career and identity as a teacher at the Denver Street School, and with that death comes the laying to rest of the giggles and fighting with the girls who both feed my soul and suck the life out of me…somehow all at the same time.

I have to die to the false notion that I’m somehow protecting my girls by being a physical presence in their lives. I have to die to my control issues and mom-brain, and the fact that even when they are cussing me out or throwing things at me, that I absolutely love my students from the bottom of my little breaking heart.

I have to die to my desire to be in the same state as one of my best friends after being on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean for a year.

I have to let some dreams die and be obedient to the calling that Christ has put in front of me. The calling to lay down my life as I know it, pick up my cross, and follow Him.

It’s been a wrestle, for sure. This process has (re)exposed just how much of a control freak I am underneath my easy-breezy hippie attitude.

I feel like I count the cost of following Jesus daily. In fact, I feel like there’s a small part of my brain that is constantly keeping a running tabulation of just how great the cost of moving to Alaska seems to be.

Some days the cost seems far too high. Those are the days when I dig my heels in, refusing to go to God, let alone want to follow Him anywhere. If I’m being honest, I don’t want to die to myself. I want to live the wonderful life that I claim to have made on my own. I want to stay and grow and keep my feet firmly planted in the Colorado soil.

But some days (few and far between as they may feel lately) God has my head screwed on correctly and He gives me the strength to lay everything down before Him and sing the Rend Collective song that is almost always playing in the back of my head.

“I’m saying yes to You
And no to my desires
I’ll leave myself behind
And follow You

I’ll walk the narrow road
‘Cause it leads me to You
I’ll fall but grace
Will pick me up again

I’ve counted up the cost
Oh, I’ve counted up the cost
Yes, I’ve counted up the cost
And You are worth it

I do not need safety
As much as I need You
You’re dangerous
But Lord, You’re beautiful

I’ll chase You through the pain
I’ll carry my cross
‘Cause real love
Is not afraid to bleed

I’ve counted up the cost
Oh, I’ve counted up the cost
Yes, I’ve counted up the cost
And You are worth it

Sing with me now

I’ve counted up the cost
Oh, I’ve counted up the cost
Yes, I’ve counted up the cost
And You are worth it

Take my all

Jesus, take my all
Take my everything
I’ve counted up the cost
And You’re worth everything

I’ve counted up the cost
Oh, I’ve counted up the cost
Yes, I’ve counted up the cost
And You are worth it

As the song says, “I’ll fall, but Grace will pick me up again.” I don’t need to be perfect. Thank God.

And you don’t need to be perfect either.

If there’s one thing that God is teaching me right now, it’s that following Him and choosing to die to ourselves is an everyday choice– an everyday struggle. Sometimes it hurts like hell and you cry a lot.  But His mercies are new every morning.

As followers of Christ, we are called to die to ourselves and our desires. And trust me, this death stings like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Jesus knows… (Literally.)

On the days when I’m struggling to lay down my life and my loved ones, sobbing in coffee shops, or just generally fighting Jesus tooth and nail, He brings me to a place of quiet consideration that He gets it. He died. For me. For you.

So even when I’m bitter and soggy, I’m learning to consider myself thankful that I have a Savior who provided the ultimate example of what it looks like to lay down your life for the flourishing of another.

Jesus was obedient and faithful to the plan that God laid before Him, even though it was more difficult than I can even begin to fathom. He was obedient even unto death on a cross, Philippians 2:8 tells us.

Laying down your life probably doesn’t look like moving across the country to a tiny village in Alaska. (If it does, we should definitely chat…)

No, I don’t know what laying down your life and dying to your desires looks like for you today, but Jesus does. And I urge you to reach out to Him for the strength to do so. Just as He is trying so hard to teach me to do.

Death sucks, but it’s necessary. After all, we cannot experience the beauty of resurrection and new life of Christ if we do not first experience death.

(And I know, because I know, because I know that Goodness and life and joy is just round some corner… Both here in Denver and eventually 2,500 miles away. But I also know that it’s okay to mourn and weep in the changing of seasons because we also have a Savior who wept.)

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain resurrection from the dead.”

(Philippians 3:7-11)

Anticipating in our own Nazareth

The last three weeks have been an absolute explosion of emotion.

There’s been intense grief and sadness revolving around the murder of one of our Denver Street School students.

There’s been the guilt that comes with the what-if’s– What if Johnny had just been in school that morning? What if we had loved him more practically? What if we had shared the Gospel more explicitly with him? What if…

There’s been an overflowing of love in my own heart for the community that God has put me in for such a time as this– An inexpressible gratitude for the marvelous people in my life who have checked in on me, texted me, prayed with me, cried with me, and kidnapped me on the weekends simply to bring life back into my withered soul.

There’s been laughter at the thought of memories, rejoicing over small moments of justice, and the heartbreaking sound of screaming and tears as teenagers have sobbed in my lap simply asking, “Why, Miss? Why?”.

It’s been an emotional heyday, but I can honestly say that the one emotion I haven’t seen much of is anticipation– which is a gut wrenching shame given the fact that all throughout this time of mourning, we have been in the season of Advent preparing for Christmas.

Advent… the season entirely devoted to anticipating the coming of sweet Baby Jesus in that manger so long ago and the second coming of our Glorious King in the days to come.

Advent… the season in which my high schoolers should be asking questions about Jesus while baking Christmas cookies in my kitchen after school. They should be studying for finals and wrapping presents, not raising money for their friend’s funeral…

You see, I think I’m stuck on this anticipation bit because before all the emotional ish hit the fan, I had some big dreams.

I had resolved that this year, things were going to be different. For the first time in my life I was going to look forward to Christmas with my own wild family and by-George, I was going to inspire my students to see the good in their own less-than-awesome situations. We were going to anticipate and adore and sing praises to the King while we baked and giggled and looked at the forecasted snow.

So that Wednesday morning, before the emotional fiasco began, I gathered my girls around the dining room table in my classroom and we read through Isaiah 9, appropriately titled “For to us a Child is born”.

We sat around that table and were brutally honest with each other; we admitted that Christmas was hard for all of us and because of that, no one was really excited for the holidays. But together we made a pact to think on the good things this year; we would think about Jesus as our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. We would think about how that little Baby born in a manger changed everything for us.

A mere six hours later, everything HAD changed, but in a way no one was anticipating.

At 6 pm, I sat sobbing on the front steps of a coffee shop, making the calls that no one ever wants to make– the phone call letting the rest of our staff know that they would be seeing a familiar face on the 10 o’clock news that night, one of our own– the victim of a triple-homicide that had shocked a quiet neighborhood in north Denver.

That night and for several days after, I simply existed. I did not adore. I did not sing. I did not bake, nor giggle, nor wrap gifts. And I certainly could not figure out how to anticipate Christmas or Jesus’ arrival.

Everything just felt broken and foggy and wrong.

As my students sat in my classroom the next day and begged to know why and how this was happening, I hugged them and sobbed, wondering similar things: I know in my mind that God is Sovereign. I know that He works all things for His ultimate Good and Glory. I know all of these things, but how? How on earth could anything good or glorious ever come out of this? This brokenness, this darkness, this despair of Your people. YOUR PEOPLE who should be celebrating YOU right now! How the heck is goodness supposed to come out of this?

That Sunday, much to my slight annoyance and mixed relief, one of our pastors at Park Church stood up and began to preach out of Isaiah 9. As Gary spoke, I doodled, “mmm”-ed, and choked back tears when he read verse 6– that same verse that I had read with my girls not even a week before. But when he looped back to the historical aspect of verse 1, he got me:

Historically, the tribe of Zebulun that is mentioned in verse 1 of Isaiah 9 had been looked on with contempt by the other nations. They had been the first to compromise their beliefs. They had been seen as the most deluded in terms of their worship of God, and because they were from the North, they were often seen as the place where destruction came from. Yet this promise in Isaiah 9 says from that same place, Light will come. From a place of darkness, Hope will come.

There’s a little town in Zebulun named Nazareth– you might have heard of it. Something amazing happened in Nazareth. Someone amazing came from Nazareth. You would have heard the people in Jesus’ own day say, “Can anything good really come from Nazareth? From that much darkness?”

Yeah. Yeah, it can. A man, our Jesus, came from Nazareth. Hope came through that darkness and Hope is coming still.

It’s been three weeks today since Johnny was taken from us, and part of me wants to think it’s a shame that a reminder of this tragedy is falling on Christmas Eve.

But this morning I was reminded: I may not be able to see it yet, heck I may not see it for a long time, but Jesus came out of the darkness of Nazareth when people questioned whether anything good could come from such a janky little town, and goodness will eventually come from this.

Someday. Someday Good will come from this mess and I can rest in that Truth because my God keeps His promises. So that is what I’m anticipating now this year– seeing His Goodness and Glory in the midst of brokenness (once again).

~

Merry Christmas to all. Yes, to the cheery stocking stuffers and the mourning, drippy mascara wearers alike. Jesus Immanuel has come to be with us in it all. For He is our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace and He will reign forever… Advent2014AnticipateFor to Us a Child Is Born”

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

2 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

(Isaiah 9:1-7)

Leather sofas, dying, & being a homeless hippie

Baptism(Disclaimer: This picture will make way more sense to you by the time you finish reading these ramblings. Don’t try to figure it out now. You might hurt your brain.)

As I write this my butt is in a car driving home from Nomads, a mind blowingly good missions conference in Oklahoma. (Don’t worry, I’m in the passenger seat. Nicole is currently driving.)

What an absolutely wild weekend it has been and what a wild week I have ahead of me. But before I get into that, I have a short story related to what is on my heart right now.

~

Once upon a time in a magical land called Aurora, there was a tall Mexican girl who owned a leather sofa. (Okay, it’s me. Go figure. Moving on.) Around the same time, I had a tiny apartment in which the white leather sofa / pull out couch lived. Every night in said teensy apartment, I would make dinner, tuck my god kids into my fluffy queen sized bed, and go sit on my white leather sofa with my then-boyfriend and study while he watched television.

Life was simple, but it was good.

Over time, that tiny apartment in the ‘hood became home. We got a puppy and nice dishes, painted the walls and bought random kitchen appliances. (You know, “American adult stuff”.)

Mr. Wrong and I enjoyed couple-y events and late night dinners with our neighbors. We took the puppy for walks around the lake near our house and sat on our patio and talked into all hours of the night.

In my own limited perspective, my life was everything I had ever wanted.

Aaaaaand then it all went to H-E-double-hockey-sticks for a little while.

By the time my lease renewal came up the following May, life had changed.

I had lost custody of my god kids and had returned to sleeping in my own bed instead of on the sofa bed.

Mr. Wrong and I broke up for the first (but unfortunately not the last) time.

I decided not to renew my lease and instead to move in with a friend in Denver. And when moving day rolled around, for some reason we legitimately could NOT get that stupid white leather sofa out of my apartment.

Seriously! For three hours I sat back and watched my dad and brothers hem and haw, push and pull, position, reposition, and then try to smush the sofa through the doorway that my friend and I had slid it through (without any hassle) a year earlier.

Nothing.

By the end of that day, my walls had holes in them from my beloved family trying to cram the sofa through a hole that it clearly was not fitting through and I had experienced at least two emotional freakouts from my siblings and dad.

Eventually, out of my own emotional exhaustion, I went into my tool box, grabbed my hammer, and began beating the sofa to pieces, ripping the leather while simultaneously cracking the wooden beams that held its frame together. After about twenty minutes of manic hammering, slightly terrified stares, and nervous laughs from my brothers, the sofa was in pieces, ready to be carried out to the dumpster.

Not quite my classiest moment…

Looking back on that today, I simply sit here and laugh to myself. Not only because I went absolutely bananas on a poor, undeserving inanimate object, but because my life today is so drastically different.

Clearly, I no longer own the leather sofa. I still have most of my nice kitchen appliances, dishes, and linens, but they have been shoved into a ten by five foot storage unit, awaiting my grand adventure to the South. (Which, side note: I drove through Texas on my way to Oklahoma and oh MAN. Pray for me. It is the WORST.

Anyway. Mr. Wrong is out of my life, despite his attempt to wiggle his way back in last week, and my dog is currently living on my mom’s ranch up north.

Oh, and me? When I get “home” to Denver tonight, I am packing up my guitar and the three boxes of my belongings that remain in my tiny apartment, and for all intents and purposes, I’m voluntarily becoming homeless.

Essentially, I am living the opposite life as I was four years ago. Back then I was a young woman playing the part of a surrogate “mom” to two little ones, with an apartment, a schedule, bedtimes, nice furniture, and a waffle maker.

Aaaaaand the intensity of not living a life like that anymore hit me today like a train.

As I was sitting in the grass before Nomads worship this morning, making a mental check list of things that I needed to do to get us back to Colorado in one piece, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of grief.

I have no home.

I have no solid plan for the next seven months.

What am I doing?!

And that’s when I heard it. Literally. It wasn’t some booming voice from heaven. Nope, it was the voice of Bono. Actually, a video of Bono that had begun to play on the screen in front of me while I had been obliviously stressing out.

“This is not a burden. This is an adventure.” Bono said, addressing the crowd of world changers & missionaries in the video.

And there, in my petite pity party on the grass in Oklahoma, I remembered why I’m doing all of this.

Jesus.

Jesus has a plan. God knows the grief in my heart and is going to provide in ways that I can’t predict or even try to comprehend.

After the video of Bono had ended and I had managed to pull my slightly emotional self together, Jamie Zumwalt, one of the women that God used to call me into international missions work this time last year, stood up and announced that they would be moving the crowd over to a swimming pool on the other side of the property where they would be baptizing anyone who wanted to devote or redevote their life to following Christ.

I had already been baptized once when I became a believer, and because I was not expecting the urge to go anywhere near a body of water this weekend, I didn’t pack a bathing suit. But ten minutes later, with all of my clothes on, I hopped into a swimming pool and was re-baptized (I’ve decided that’s a thing.) by one of the most formative women in my missions journey thus far.

Today, I chose Jesus. I chose not only to follow Him in my heart and mind like I did when I was first baptized, but with my whole life. Today I needed to make a statement (more for myself than anyone else) that I am dying to my desires– my dreams of white leather sofas, waffle makers, and stability. I am following my Savior where ever He leads me.

So here I sit, in a car somewhere in Kansas with soggy clothes on, the windows down, and worship music blasting on my way back to the great state of Colorado.

As of today, I have nothing figured out. I have a vague idea of where I will be staying for the next few months but I know that God has called me into a season of adventure and obedience. I will go wherever He calls me, whenever He calls me there, and it will be beautiful.

My name is Kacy and I am becoming a nomad for Jesus.

As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another He said, “Follow me.” But the man said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
(Luke 9:57-62)