Even if the river otters leave

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus or fall

OFCBandanasThere’s this leadership activity we do whenever we take our DSS students to the Outfitters for Christ ranch called the “Broken Body Game”. (Don’t worry– it’s no where near as morbid as it sounds.)

For this activity, the OFC staff hikes our students and their teacher chaperones a few miles into the woods and creates a tragic and extravagant hypothetical situation that usually goes something like this:

Last night, all ten of us boarded an airplane bound for Hawaii. On our way over these mountains, a bird was sucked into one of our engines and the plane went down. Tragically, all of the OFC staff and interns were killed on impact and the rest of you were severely injured in some way. The rescue helicopter has spotted you, but can’t land here due to the dense tree cover. The helicopter has landed in the pasture next to the ranch house, but you have to make it to them to receive medical care, as they won’t be able to find you on foot before night fall. You have to make sure that your whole team makes it to safety because if anyone is left behind in the woods tonight, they likely won’t make it to morning.

The OFC staff then takes out their infamous blue bananas and ties them around the “broken body parts” of the survivors.

Some have bandanas tied around their mouths signifying that they can’t speak. Some can’t use one or both of their legs or arms. Some have broken backs or hips and therefore must be carried to safety.

Or if you’re “lucky” (as I almost always am) you’re the sucker that gets blindfolded so you can’t see to help lead the team out of the woods.

The only rules of this game? You can’t use the body part that’s been injured and you must make sure your whole team makes it out of the woods alive.

I’ve played these OFC “reindeer games” several times and since I’m usually blind, the game is fairly simple for me; I usually just take the hand of someone whose arm is “broken” but who can verbally lead me out of the woods, and away we go.

A few miles and the occasional spill over a fallen tree, and I’m usually back to home base, safe and relatively sound.

This summer’s round was different though…

True to my normal “broken body game” status, my glasses were taken from me and replaced by a thick blue bandana.

As the students around me were given their “injuries”, I backed myself up to the fallen aspen I had been standing in front of and took a seat. After a few minutes, I heard the OFC staff shout, “Go!” I stood to my feet and felt someone grab my hand.

“Who are you?” I laughed, dramatically swinging my arms around, trying to distinguish who was grabbing me.

“It’s Mr. Clawson,” one of the seniors shouted back toward us. “He can’t talk.”

The mute leading the blind… Coooooool, I’m definitely gonna die. I thought as I started asking questions like an idiot.

“Do you know which way the road is?”

Silence. Right… He can’t talk.

I wandered forward with my arms extended out in front of me, cupped in Clawson’s hands. “Can you somehow tell me if I’m about to eat it?”

He shifted his hands from their cupped position, putting one of them in front of my fists. I stopped, confused. Just then I felt his other hand tap my foot.

“Step up?”

One tap.

“Does that mean yes?” I laughed.

Another tap.

“Okay, one tap for yes. Two taps for no. Sound good?”

One tap.

We walked like that, through thickets of wild rose bush, over fallen logs, across a small stream, and even under what I’m assuming was a giant tree branch just waiting to decapitate my very blind self. We communicated only in questions and faux Morse code. (And the occasional burst of nervous laughter.)

Our communication system was slow, but as long as I kept my full attention on the way Andrew’s hands were moving over and in front of my fists, I knew that we were gonna be fine. After two years of working on the same teaching team as Clawson, I knew I could trust him and I knew that we solved problems well together– with, or evidently without words.

At one point, we were doing so well with our very quiet communication that we caught up with two of our students– Jack, who didn’t have use of one of his arms, and Ricky, who was just as blind as I was. As we moved closer, I could hear Jack leading his classmate through the bushes.

“Okay, Ricky. You’re gonna take three small steps forward and then you’re going to pick up your right foot to climb over a small fallen log. You can steady yourself on my good arm. One… Two… Three…”

The temptation to listen to the directions ahead of me became too great for my little brain and as Jack said “Three…” my right foot unconsciously raised and slammed back into the flat ground in front of me. Andrew, worried that I was going to fall, began furiously tapping the front of my hands, warning me to stop.

“Sorry, I was focusing on Jack. My brain just couldn’t help it.” I admitted, embarrassed as I apologized to Clawson and he urged us forward.

For the next quarter mile, as we tailed Jack and Ricky, I struggled to keep my mental wires from getting crossed.

Focus on what is right here. Focus on what you’re being told now… I told myself every time I began to listen to the directions ahead and started to stumble.

~

With only five weeks until I leave for Alaska, I feel the tension of that mountain side in my heart everyday.

I’m here in Denver now. But I’m leaving soon.

I have to focus on what I’m doing here, even though my brain continuously tries to focus solely on the what lies ahead of me.

With every fundraising e-mail, item packed, and date ticked away in my journal, I’m walking toward Alaska. And most days I’m okay with that– I know I’m following Jesus. In fact, I can almost feel His hands over top of mine, guiding me quietly through this season of transition.

But some days, my mind wanders to the future and I stop focusing on the quiet (sometimes seemingly too quiet) direction that God is giving me everyday.

July 6th was one of those days when my lack of focus caused to me to fall.

It started just like the majority of my summer mornings did this year– with a quiet coffee date with Jesus on my front porch.

Quiet coffee soon turned into me realizing I was late for work, which turned into rushing through my work day, only to fight through rush hour traffic to make it to a dinner appointment with a supporter, barely on time.

Over Chipotle (Oh, how I’m going to miss Chipotle this next year), I sat and told a dear friend all about the call to go to Alaska. How clear it has been. How excited I am to go. How gracious God has been throughout the fundraising process.

At the end of it all, I looked down just in time to see my phone buzz, reminding me that I was going rock climbing with friends that evening.

Julie and I prayed, said our goodbyes, and I flew back out the door to my car.

And in that car ride on my way to the climbing gym, the tears that I didn’t realize I had been holding in all throughout dinner came pouring out of me. I had just finished rehashing Alaska for the umpteenth time, but suddenly something seemed so big and different.

All of the individual days of fundraising e-mails, prayer, quiet preparation, and packing had added up without me realizing it. Suddenly Alaska was only two months away and I felt like there was no more time left here in Denver.

My brain had launched itself into September, October, and November over the course of dinner with Julie, and suddenly I couldn’t help but worry about the directions and questions that lie ahead of me:

What will it look like to live with 5-1o teenage girls that I don’t know? What will it be like to never “leave” work? Am I cut out for this? Will I be a good enough teacher? Will I be able to relate to them? What the heck will I cook for them when all I know how to make from memory is Mexican food? Will they even like Mexican food? How on God’s-green-earth am I going to survive in a village for a year with minimal contact to the “outside world”?

My mind became so intensely focused on the future that I started tripping and stumbling all over the place– literally; I’ve never had such a rough go at rock climbing in my life. By the end of the night I was frustrated and embarrassed after falling from route, after route. Every time my fingers slipped off a hold and my body fell off the wall, I was instantly transported back to that first stumble on the mountain side during the Broken Body Game.

I bawled my eyes out on the highway driving home that night, only to get home, sit on the sofa with my roommates, and cry yet again.

I can’t go. I can’t. It’s too much. I can’t see what’s in front of me. I’m feel like I’m going to fall. I feel like I’m going to fail. I’m terrified. I sobbed into my hands while Amy sat with her arm around me and prayed.

Focus on Me. I’m telling you what is coming, but you don’t need to worry about that right now. Just focus on Me, here, now. I heard the Spirit, deep in my soul in between dramatic, heaving sobs.

Nearly a month later, it’s still an everyday battle to be here in Denver, in a season of mass transition, and to be here with Jesus. But that’s nothing new. Heck, before I even knew I was going to Port Alsworth, I struggled to be present and still where the Lord had put me.

But even as I struggle to be still, I praise God for the people that he has put next to me.

Thank you to those of you who constantly grab my fists and lead me back to Christ (and the realization that I’m still in Denver). Thank you to those of you who are walking this tension between the present and the future with me. Thank you to those of you who have sacrificed so that I may go, and simultaneously learn to stay.

While this season is definitely making me aware of just how broken my body and my heart may be, it is also a season of Good and Grace. And for that, I am incredibly thankful.

“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

(Psalm 46:10)

(If you’re interested in learning more about Port Alsworth, the Tanalian Leadership Center, and what my work will entail during my time in Alaska, click here. Or, if you’re interested in supporting my mission financially or in prayer, you can click here to learn more.)