Tattoo baptisms

The reality of my line of work is that when students come up to me and say, “Miss, I have something to tell you,” I’ve learned brace myself; typically that phrase is followed by some sort of confession or a pregnancy announcement. But when Lisa walked into my classroom and said those words to me last year, she didn’t seem upset or panicked (as is usual with the teenage pregnancy announcement shtick) so I took a deep breath and tried to shake some of the tension out of my shoulders that had instantly accumulated there.

“What’s up?” I asked as I shuffled papers around on my desk, failing miserably at being non-chalant.

“Uhm, maybe I’ll tell you later. You look busy.”

I didn’t protest and instead tried to take a deep breath and blow it off. Inevitably “DSS happened” and I got swept away with my day teaching, completely forgetting about Lisa and the emotional cliff she had left me hanging on.

After lunch, she sauntered into my classroom for senior English. Before I could say anything, she turned her back to me and swept her hair to the side. As she did so, she revealed a tattoo reaching down her upper spine that read God is love and only love.

“Whaaaaaat?! Lis, I love it!” I stammered, allowing my pulse to slow (incredibly relieved that the thing she was dying to tell me about that morning was just a tattoo).

“You like it?” She launched into a story about how she had been on the verge of making a stupid decision after getting into a fight with her mom over the weekend. “Instead of smoking weed or something though, I decided to go for a “solo” like we learned to do at the conference in Alaska. I grabbed my coat and walked for a few hours while I thought about everything I’ve learned about God at DSS and on our trip— you know, how He’s always there for us… how He loves us… all of that. As I kept walking, I kept thinking about Eric’s words in Port Alsworth: “God is love and only love”. Before I knew it, I was standing outside a tattoo parlor. I decided I never wanted to forget those words, so I got them inked on my back; I want to live my life knowing that God loves me.”

By this point, the bell to begin class had rung and I had an audience of senior girls staring at me like I had lost my mind as I stood next to Lisa with my hands cupped over my mouth and tears running down my cheeks.

“Oh Lis. That’s beautiful. And such a big commitment for someone who wasn’t all that sure about God (let alone, Jesus) at the beginning of this school year.”

“I know, Miss. But I wanted to write it on my heart— I want knowing God’s character to change everything I do.”

By this point, I was in full on water-works mode. “Do you guys know what a baptism is?” I choked out, turning to the rest of my class. (I figured we were studying Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters, so this conversation was mildly pertinent to the rest of my girls for academic reasons.)

“Isn’t it when someone gets dunked in water?” One of my girls pipped up.

“Usually… Does anyone know why people get baptized?” I pressed, doing my best to dry my happy/ sappy tears and put on my teacher hat.

*Crickets*

“Baptism is a public declaration of a person’s faith in Jesus. When someone gets baptized they’re saying to the world that they want to follow Jesus and live their life in a changed way because of the way He has changed them.”

I glanced around the room and met a bunch of empty, unimpressed stares before catching Lisa’s eye.

“Lis, correct me if I’m wrong… but I think that’s what you did this weekend. I think you got a Street School style baptism…?”

She smiled slyly, nodded, and took her seat.

~ ~ ~

My tears that day (as strange as they must have seemed to the rest of my students) were all joy, enhanced by the knowledge that mere months before Lis made the conscious decision to declare her love for the Lord, she doubted His existence, His goodness, His love for her (or anyone else for that matter).

Today, I sat in a similar posture as Lisa had the day before she brushed her hair to the side and revealed her new ink. With my arm extended, I chose to have someone etch Truth into me— similar to the way the body of Christ, my friends and family have done over the last year since our plane disappeared.

IMG_0750It is for freedom – Script by the lovely Katie Brown

“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

Those words from Galatians 5:1 are ones I have spoken to myself often since the evening of December 7th, 2016.

I will never forget the out of body experience that came with being curled on my knees on my kitchen floor, clutching the phone on which my best friend in Alaska had just delivered the news of the disappearance of Scott, Kaitlyn, Zach, Kyle, and our plane. I will never be able to stop seeing myself there, nor can I seem to forget the feeling of all of my breath leaving my body as my head was plunged back under the icy waters of grief, not even six months after Kevin and Geno’s deaths. I can still vaguely feel the way my lungs remained contracted for months, unable to fully inhale for fear of breathing in water— my own tears. A very wise friend assured me one afternoon that maybe that season of feeling like I was under water was meant to be a baptism, not the vengeful drowning of me, an “unworthy sinner” by my most Holy God. (Oh how I have kept that wisdom close to my heart.)

The words from Galatians 5:1 are those which I heard the Lord whisper to my spirit upon my first ever flight as pilot-in-command in April of 2016. As I manned the yoke in our Cherokee and screamed, “Oh my God! I’m flying!! I’m flying a plane! Who thought this was a good idea?!” like the spazz I am, I almost audibly felt him calm me: Shhhhhhh, sweet girl. I have set you free so that the freedom of the gospel might be spread to places only planes can go; it is for freedom Christ has set us free.

Those words are the ones which Scott teased me for mercilessly when I said I wanted to get them tattooed on my arm once I solo-ed in the Cherokee for my pilot’s license. In his typical snarky way, He would always extend an interpretation of the verse to include: “do not be yoked again to the slavery of the ground!” where scripture says, “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Pilot jokes… they’re almost as bad as dad jokes… (And oh, Scott had such a knack for both.) 

Those words have been my constant reminder that the Lord has not allowed our loved ones’ deaths and Homecomings to be in vain; rather that their transference into the Heavens has been a means by which the gospel has been spread to the very ends of the earth— the most remote Alaskan villages, the Cambodian countryside, humble living rooms all over the US as Julie’s story has been written and read, and all over the world as the body of Christ has rallied our little Alaskan village in prayer.

Those words are a reminder of my calling in life: to be unashamed of the Freedom I carry within my bones because of what Christ has done on the cross, and to call others into that glorious Freedom.

So today, a day where my own grief and the grief I carry in my heart for my dear friends seems strong enough to suck me back under the icy waters, I chose to take a leaf out of Lisa’s book and baptize myself in Truth:

Even here, even now, the Truth remains that God is love and only love. In the midst of trials and sorrow, anniversaries of deaths, and the reminders of dreams and hopes deferred, my God is a God of freedom.

Christ came that we may be set free– that we might proclaim the beautiful, even if tragic, ways that His coming into world and our lives has changed everything.

Jesus, make our hearts believe.

Broncos2016

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Corkscrews and broken record players

There’s a cyclical aspect to grief.

The visual that comes to my mind is more of a corkscrew than a perfect circle though. Maybe that’s it… Maybe grief is a corkscrew that winds deeper and deeper into my heart over time. With each birthday of a lost loved one or the anniversary of their death, I feel myself returning nearly full-circle to the pain and discontentment I felt in my heart a year ago. But those feelings are ever so slightly different this time around…

At each turn, I find myself saying the same phrase I’ve said a million times: I want to be done grieving. And yet, I’m not. I’m still not done.

May was brimming with birthdays and anniversaries of days I’d rather not have engrained in my mind. This month has brought about much celebrating and mourning– so many twists of that metaphorical corkscrew. With each near-circle, the Lord has reached new depths of my heart, bringing about fresh pain while using that pain to expose my own sin, cynicism, pride, and bitterness.

It’s good though, this cyclical process, the screwing in and stripping away… It’s “capital G Good”, “type-2 Good” if I can borrow from the idea of “type-2 fun” and twist it to create a concept. It’s Good not because it feels good (because it doesn’t). It’s Good because as painful as the corkscrew drilling down into my heart is, and for as much as I grimace and cry, I can feel the Lord tenderly speaking healing over my wounds and fears in His timing.

He continues to prove Himself as the Great Physician, even when my wounds seem to deepen or the grief I so desperately want to be over compounds.

As I’ve walked through this month of intermingled celebration and mourning, there have been days where I have found myself a broken record player saying/ screaming/ silently cursing the words that filled my journal and conversations this time last year:

I don’t understand.

I still don’t understand.

I don’t understand the brokenness. I don’t understand this pain. I don’t understand death and separation and the finality of each that sinks in on a new level every day.

I don’t understand why this is Your plan, God.

Yet there, in the screaming and beside my silent cold shoulder He has faithfully met me this month, bringing words of truth from Hope When It Hurts (a devotional on suffering that has been my path back to Jesus many mornings throughout this messy season).

“‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55:8-9)

If God always acted in ways that made sense to us, then He certainly wouldn’t have sent His sinless Son to die in our place, offering us complete forgiveness and acceptance freely through Christ before anyone even asked Him to (Romans 5:8).”

In a plot twist of sorts, on the year anniversary of Kevin’s death, with another turn of the metaphorical corkscrew, I found myself on my knees in the grass outside of Denver General Hospital, weeping and terrified. Twenty minutes before I had received the news that my grandfather– the anchor of our family– had had a stroke. And on a day where the grief already felt like a bit too much, the corkscrew went deeper into my heart and pushed me to my knees. Outside of that hospital in the middle of downtown Denver, my broken record brain repeated my familiar song through tears yet again:

I don’t understand.

Nearly a week removed from that day, the Truth remains that I don’t need to understand; I likely never will.

This week as I’ve sat in a hospital room next to my dozing grandfather, I’ve played one of his favorite jazz records over my phone speaker. In those moments, I’ve closed my eyes and held his hand, pretending we’re in his basement listening to that record play over his beautiful antique phonograph, instead of in a room full of beeping machines.

In those moments, and the moments between, I’ve struggled to make the choice to replace my own broken-record-inner-monologue with Truth. The reality is that I have struggled against the root of bitterness this week (month) [year]. My prayers have been funky and nonsensical, an inconsistent mix of submission, confession, expletives, and stabs at thankfulness that my God isn’t one Who operates within the scope of my understanding.

The other reality within all of this is that I don’t know how this story will continue on.

I don’t know why the Lord has placed me back in a situation so similar to that of the last week of May 2016. I don’t understand why He has me asking roughly the same question I was asking this time last year as I was preparing to leave for Cambodia: “What if someone else I love dies when I go to Asia?”

I really, truly don’t understand.

But by His grace I am finding peace in fits and starts through the Truth that the most illogical events on earth brought about my greatest Good when my perfect Jesus died on the cross, then rose three days later.

(And in the moments when the corkscrew turns and I simply can’t be the one to fight for that Truth, I’m learning to turn on worship music and allow Him to be the One to become the answer to my questions.)

“Because I spoke of things I do not understand, things too Wonderful for me. Although I had no right to ask, my God knelt and answered me.” -Ghost Ship, “Where Were You”

Nothing but the blood of Jesus

“What can wash away my sin?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What can make me whole again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

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

“Oh Holy Night, the weary soul rejoices…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_1705

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

~~~

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

Blom family memorial service / out of state family travel expenses

Kyle’s memorial service / family travel expenses

Help send the Brent/ Boe families to Alaska

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)– Trial 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)