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)

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How WAS my day? [A call to prayer]

“Woah… Hey… How was your day?” My friend probably could’ve spared herself the question. I’m fairly certain the glazed over, crazy lady look in my eyes was a dead give away that today was, well… a day.

I let my backpack slide off my shoulder and onto the floor as I stared vacantly at my feet, trying to find the words to articulate how my day was.

Nothing seemed right.

Saying, “Good! My toughest group of kids finally fell in love with our novel and we read forty pages in class!” seemed like a really out of sorts introduction to the sentence that would’ve followed it: “Oh, and before 9 AM, I saw a bullet hole in one of my student’s legs from where he was shot this weekend.” Or, I suppose I could’ve said, “My day was a mixed bag, but thankfully I escaped to Cork & Coffee after school to lesson plan. Things had just calmed down when I overheard an altercation down the street and then had a man run toward me shouting, ‘Did you see a guy in a black hoodie?! He just stabbed someone!’ moments before an ambulance pulled up to take the victim to the hospital. So, that was weird.”

But to simply say that my day was a mixed bag would also graze over the fact that I spent two different passing periods today comforting various girls whose 17 year old cousin/friend/ex-boyfriend had been shot and killed late last week… And each of those tender moments had a fairly significant impact on the way my day had gone, so excluding them feels weird.

So, how was my day? Chaotic? But somehow, not really. In fact, it was a fairly orderly day by DSS standards.

Good? Meh. I wouldn’t go that far.

Hard? Well, yes and no. After all, I’m far more “used to” (or rather desensitized to) gunshot wounds and stabbings than I probably should be.

As I struggled for words to explain the rough edges of my day, it hit me that I honestly don’t have room to speak negatively about the way today went either. I mean, we made great strides in English; for the first time in my teaching career my kids didn’t want to stop reading AND they even wrote a two paragraph summary without gasping and splaying themselves against my classroom wall in disbelief that I could ask them to do such a thing. (You may think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. The wall splaying really, truly happened last Tuesday.) Oh, and my college and career guest speaker this morning? He was a hit! (Granted, his first few words when he walked into my classroom this morning were, “Uh, I think I just saw a drug deal go down in the parking lot across the street…” But such is Street School life.) Then there’s the fact that my art students crushed their assignment for the day and a few even stayed after school to continue their work. So. many. good things happened today in the academic realm. Yet that doesn’t negate the pain in my heart that caused my wide-eyed stare.

Thus, I return to my friend’s question: how was my day? After a few hours of trying to find words to explain the jumble that is my short-term memory, I’m essentially still without a verdict. Maybe that’s because I don’t think there’s a word in the English language that aptly describes what life as a Street School teacher is (or isn’t) or how our days with our students go.

The only way I can put it is that being back at the Street School is “all the things”; it’s academic celebrations with tears sprinkled throughout, bookended by the agonizing realities of gang warfare and darkness that my students come from each morning and return to each afternoon. Yet somehow it’s all covered in the glorious Hope of Christ that things can be different if my students come to Him. It’s weird, but it’s beautiful in the same breath.

Unlike most things I write, this post doesn’t contain a lesson from Jesus or a nice tied together ending. At least, not yet. And although it most certainly exists within the reality of my job, I swear I don’t write this for shock value.

No, I’m writing to give you a window into the reality of my students’ lives and to ask you to partner with me this year in prayer. Theirs is a reality that exists right within the heart of Denver and every city like it. A reality that can be found mere houses or blocks away from where the majority of you are reading this in your quiet, violence-free homes on the outskirts of suburbia. That quiet? That end-of-the-day peace that you’re probably experiencing right now? That is not the reality for many of my students. But oh, how I long for that to change.

So would you join me and our mildly shell-shocked Street School staff as we enter back into our students’ lives and pray for and with them this school year?

Would you join us in praying for:

  • Opportunities to share the gospel with our students. Very few of them would consider Christ to be the Lord of their lives, and even fewer have heard of the way He loves them with His “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (The Jesus Storybook Bible). Pray that our students would be open to His Love and Truth. Pray that they would allow themselves to be swept off their feet by the sweet Savior Who has already come for them.
  • The Peace of Christ to reign in this city. Unless you’re weird like me and spend your free time reading graffiti on highway underpasses, it’s easy to miss the fact that there’s a thriving gang culture here in Denver. Due to a handful of recent events within a few local gangs, there has been a flare up of violence in our city. Pray that redemption and peace would prevail over retaliation. Pray for my students to have an iota of forethought and not get themselves involved in risky or violent situations.
  • Spiritual eyes for our staff to see what really matters. Sometimes that really, truly means English homework and sometimes that means setting aside our lesson plans and engaging in soul care instead of vocabulary lists. Pray that we, as a staff, would be loving, intentional, and wise in all of our interactions with our students.  

I’m eternally grateful for the love, prayers, and support you’ve covered me in these last few years as I’ve done life everywhere from the inner city of Denver to the very ends of the earth. As I seem to say at the beginning of every school year, I know the Lord is going to do miraculous, mind-boggling, earth shattering things this year. He has always been faithful to exceed even my biggest expectations for a school year and He has graciously called all of us to be a part of His plan.

Thank you in advance for joining in on what Jesus is doing in this beautiful city through prayer.

May the glory be to God– in the midst of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this school year.

xo,

Kace

Adoption changes everything

“You must be so strong.”

“Adoption is the most selfless thing you could have done, you know, given the circumstances.”

“I can’t even imagine how hard that had to have been, even though they weren’t your biological kids.”

People say these words when they hear our story– the story of how we gave up lost …whatever happened with my godkids four years.

I don’t tell the story often because if you look at my life today, you probably wouldn’t guess that things used to be entirely different.

I also don’t tell our story often because unlike the people who try to console me, I simply don’t have words.

As a writer it’s frustrating when you can’t come up with flowery words for something you want to describe in detail, or when you can’t even think of a metaphor for the situation when you want to be more discrete.

There is no way I could ever describe the way my stomach churns every time I wonder if I made the right decision, testifying that my babies were better off in a home full of strangers than with the people they grew up calling their family.

There is no way I could explain the splintered feeling I get deep in my being whenever someone tosses a “you’re so strong” my way in regards to the adoption, and all I want to do is scream,NO, I’M NOT!! I’m a freaking mess over here. I just want my kids back.”

There are no words that even get close to expressing the feeling I experienced four years ago when I handed our case worker the brown paper bag containing Mary Ray’s 6th birthday presents– presents that she likely unwrapped in a family visitation room while she sat, confused and terrified, with her 2 year old little brother waiting to be placed in a foster home, just hours after the judge ruled that they would not be returning to the home they knew.

There is no synonym for brokenness or pain like that. 

I don’t have words that accurately describe the way that pain grips my heart when I think about someone else tucking my sweet Mary Ray into bed at night, let alone tonight, on the eve of her 10th birthday.

As I sit here and ruminate on the “selfless” aspect of adoption, all that crosses my mind is how selfish I really am– How desperately I want to know what my babies’ lives look like today, no matter the cost…

On days like today, the only words that come to mind, come in the form of questions:

Did they get goodnight kisses? Did their new mommy or daddy read them a bedtime story? Are they eating their vegetables? Does someone sing to them from the front seat of the car on the way home from school?

Do they know how desperately I long to read them stories from the Bible each night? Do they know their worth? Do they love Jesus? Do they know that Jesus loves them? Do they know that I love them?!

Do they even remember me?

Does Mary Ray remember the Build-A-Bear that was in that brown bag four years ago? Has she ever looked at its tag and read my phone number, wondering whose it was and why it was there?

I don’t know… And I may never know on this side of Heaven.

All that I do know, all that I cling to within this situation– this never ending battle with my selfish and broken momma heart– is Jesus.

Over the last four years of birthdays and Christmases, first and last days of school, and all the ordinary days in between, Jesus has been teaching me what adoption really is.

Yes, adoption involves pain because for there to be a need for adoption, there has to be a lack of something else– a lack of someone to be there to take care of you.

But adoption is so much more than the pain. Adoption is a display of Supreme Love because adoption was created by God Himself.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Holy Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:14-19)

God understands the pain of those learning how to come to terms with earthly adoption; He gave up His Son, that we might have perfect union with Himself. He understands what it is to turn His face from His Son, for His good and the good of all man kind.

As my students make fun of me for saying, “Jesus knows, child.”

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

And just like I struggle to find words to tell the story of the two little humans who shaped me the most, there aren’t words for the type of beauty or grace that is found at the throne of God. There simply aren’t…

So while my heart grieves and I kneel before the throne, begging for my babies to know that they are loved by me if by no one else on earth, He has brought me to a new place this year. A place where I can cry out just one simple prayer:

“Lord, this year on her birthday, let my sweet baby girl know that she has been adopted by the most beautiful and glorious Father in the universe. For every ounce of my love for my babies fails in comparison to the ocean that is Yours.”

sweet

Happy 10th birthday sweet girl. I la-la-la-love you, no matter how many miles there are between us.

Living in expectation(s)

Having two weeks off from work has been an incredible blessing. Considering the fact that it is the holidays, I have also gotten to spend an unusual amount of time with my family. As I’ve mentioned before, I come from a HUGE family with siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins spread all over the state and country– people who typically don’t spend holidays together, but this holiday season has been different. Because I finally walked in my teaching license commencement a few weeks ago, I have been blessed to have the majority of my family in town at some point over my winter break, which has meant a ton of coffee dates and late night chats in our pajamas.

I love spending quality time with my peeps, but this time around I noticed that something is different in my life– something noticeable and big and sort of scary… kinda like the proverbial elephant in the room that was repeatedly unleashed when a family member would pepper me with the questions that every single 20-something year old woman dreads: “So, do you have a boyfriend yet?” “Now that you’re finally done with school, have you started looking into buying a small house?” “Are you thinking of moving home to Pueblo or staying in Denver?”

You see, I come from a rather traditional Hispanic family– one where the expectation is that once you are done with your schooling (I have learned that “done” is an incredibly relative word, typically meaning once you have finished your Bachelor’s) you pack your bags and move home to be near your family in the small town where they are rooted. And for years and years, I wanted to follow that expectation; I wanted to move home and help start a Street School in Pueblo. I wanted to find a little house in my family’s neighborhood where I could watch my cousins grow up, where I could be near the side of my family that I see so infrequently, where I could learn to cook from my aging grandmother… I don’t exactly consider myself a “people-pleaser” but after being asked these same questions over and over again, I realized that part of me wanted to live up to these expectations and please my family.

But then there is the other part of me, the part that is independent and ready to go where ever God is calling me to go. The part that typically takes control of me and leads me about my daily life. After a few seconds of sadness that I wasn’t living up to my family’s expectations for my life, this part of me would regroup and I would respond to the boyfriend inquiry with a cheerful, “Nope” and the moving questions with, “I’m actually thinking of moving to Dallas and then maybe to a jungle or desert on another continent after I’m done with my Master’s Degree to work with refugees and assist with Bible Translation instead of coming home.” After that last sentence I could feel the room turn uncomfortably silent for what felt like a few decades, but what I’m sure was only a few seconds at most.

After the pause and some awkward squirming, my family’s overwhelming response was something to the tune of, “Oh, well maybe you’ll meet a nice boy before then and settle down.”

This is where my teaching training came in handy because as my mouth smiled and said, “Yeah. Maybe,” my brain was screaming, “AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”

Maybe I’m just crazy and stubborn, (Okay, I’m definitely crazy and stubborn.) but I don’t want to “settle down” right now. And I am tired of my culture telling me that there is something missing in my life. I am sick of being told that as a young, single, Christian woman, I am incomplete until I have a boyfriend that I can marry, buy a cute little house with, and then fill said cute house with cute little children.

I am sick of it.

Last time I checked, I have a brain, a heart, two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and four functional appendages; I’m not incomplete. I am a whole freaking human being! And finding a boyfriend or moving back to the little town I came from won’t make me any more or less of a human being.

Okay, let me hop off my soapbox and get to the point here…

Last week, I met up and had coffee with a dear friend who is not only in the same(ish) stage of life as me, but whom God is also calling to move outside of her comfort zone and into nations on the other side of the world. As Kathryn and I were chatting, she expressed many of the same frustrations that I have been feeling and how she, upon being called to Rwanda for the next several months to do ministry through her photography, felt guilty for not fulfilling her own family’s expectations of her.

She explained that she had Skyped with her home church’s pastor months ago, and had expressed these feelings of guilt with him. After listening to her mixed feelings of wanting to go where God was calling her, but not wanting to disappoint her equally traditional family, he said some of the most simple, but sage words of wisdom that I have heard in a long time.

“You’re forgetting that God created everyone differently. Not every woman was created to pay a mortgage.”

As she repeated this story to me, all I could think was, Duh! How had I missed this? How had I forgotten that I am not my cousins or aunts? And that because I am different, I am not called to the same things.

For some reason, there was something so freeing about those nine words. For days I repeated them in my mind. Not every woman was created to pay a mortgage. Not every woman was created to pay a mortgage.

These words have reminded me that no, I’m not defective for being a content single woman who doesn’t currently want to be tied to a house with a white picket fence. Nor am I strange for wanting to move out of my comfort zone here in America to the other side of the world some day instead of “settling down” and buying a tiny house here in the States.

I am called, as is Kathryn, as are you. Maybe we’re not called to the same things, but we’re all called to something, be that singleness, married life, to live in the U.S., Rwanda, Germany, or Lebanon… We are different and therefore differently called; what a novel concept!

And who knows, maybe God will drop an adventurous man into my life sometime between now and then, but maybe not. Maybe I’ll get to partially fulfill my family’s expectations for my life and have a cute little family overseas someday, but maybe not. Slowly, I have begun to realize that at the end of the day, none of these things matter. The only thing that genuinely matters is God and that I follow Him and His expectations for me.

So for now I am learning to be genuinely content with where God is placing me instead of living under the thumb of the burdensome expectations of my culture or well-meaning loved ones. It might not make me popular with my family come the next holiday, but I have no doubt that God will work that out when the time comes. He always does…

What has God called you to? Will you follow Him or will you let the expectations placed on you hold you back?

“Are you bound in marriage? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from marriage? Do not seek to marry. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried [wo]man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:27,32)

Immanuel (Even when “it” sucks)

The-Griswold-Family-Christmas

Sometimes Christmas sucks. Actually, if you’re a part of my beautiful, dysfunctional family, you know that suckage is one of our main holiday traditions. (Well, suckage and the watching of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, as pictured above.) Typically, the sucking sucks so much that I end up bawling my eyes out at some point on either Christmas Eve / Day, then sucking up all the suckage and carrying on about my holiday with a plastered on grin/grimace. This year, the dysfunction and suckage came early, and as I sit here at 4:00 in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, (pre-“festivities”, mind you) I am already emotionally exhausted.

I don’t write this for pitty, trust me, I could pretty much care less at this point. Nor do I write this to bring down those of you that are having a wonderful, non-sucky time with your families. Instead, my main motive of this blog is to pass on the wonderful and snarky words of a fellow blogger & missionary, Jamie. If you too are having a sucky holiday, I advise you to read this lovely blog post on the Fall of Christmas.

I love how Jamie ends her post, and therefore I am borrowing her words to conclude my own; “Jesus didn’t come to fix it all.  He came to be with us in it all.

Immanuel.

God with us.

Blessed are the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the hungry… for The Lord is with us.”

Merry sad Christmas, Beloved. You. Are Not. Alone.
May you celebrate the Birth of Our King today and tomorrow, knowing that He came to live with and within all of us, that we might never be alone in all of our suckiness.
Merry Christmas,
Lou