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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To fly by faith and not by sight…

What does it look like to fly on faith, and faith alone?

That’s easy. Anytime you fly as a passenger in a plane, you’re flying solely on faith– Faith that the stranger at the controls isn’t an absolute idiot; faith that the plane had been properly inspected and is mechanically sound for flight. More than likely, as a regular person boarding a plane, you aren’t sure of either of those things. You’re hopeful… But you’re not one hundred percent sure.

Flying is all about faith, really.

You see, there are two different types of flying—VFR, where you operate by Visual Flight Rules and can see where you’re going, and IFR, where you are operating under Instrument Flight Rules. In layman’s terms—when you’re flying IFR, you can’t see where you’re going all the time. You have to rely on your instruments: your altimeter, GPS, compass, etc.

When you fly VFR, you’re not flying through dense cloud cover, excessive fog, or blinding snow or rain. You know and can see your surroundings. For many experienced pilots, flying VFR is a cake walk. (The key word there is experienced; the thought of flying as pilot in command period still makes my inexperienced pilot stomach flip a bit… But I digress.)

Lake Clark Pass
Lake Clark Pass in all it’s VFR, summer glory.

Last summer when I visited Port Alsworth, the VFR flight conditions couldn’t have been better (even though I didn’t know it at the time). As we flew over the wetlands outside of Anchorage on my first ever approach to Port Alsworth, the weather was perfect and clear. So clear, in fact, that I could see brown bears running awkwardly along the streams below us, chasing their salmon dinners. The glaciers we buzzed by in Lake Clark Pass were a crisp turquoise, reflecting the bright blue sky above and the teal hue of Lake Clark below. Oh, it was a sight to behold… A true VFR miracle for a first time bush plane passenger.

Flying into Port Alsworth this September, was a bit of a different story.

Alaska greeted me on September 15th with a slush/rain storm that made flight in a tiny two-seater airplane seem a bit more difficult. As I sat in the Lake and Pen Air office at Merrill Field Airport that morning, I stared out at the windy conditions and rapidly changing precipitation. I half-way expected my bush flight to be delayed, if not cancelled entirely. After all, even the giant Alaska Airlines plane that carried me to Anchorage had hit so much turbulence the night before that it seemed like we were going to fall out of the sky.

But sure enough, at a little after ten o’clock, my wild child of a pilot came bursting into the LPA office, announcing that I was the lucky winner of a one-way flight “home” with him to Port Alsworth.

IMG_0226
This guy… He is just one of my faves.

As we loaded my bags into the tiny plane, word came over a radio that a plane had just crashed in Iliamna—just 20 miles from our destination. Eeesh… not exactly reassuring… I thought as I grabbed Lyle’s hand and he pulled me up into our plane. I made some comment about bush pilots not being deterred by much, to which he simply laughed and told me that this flight was going to be an easy one.

We taxiied down to the end of our runway and I watched as my pilot punched buttons, radioed people I couldn’t quite hear, and then hit the throttle. Before I knew it, we were hauling down the runway, and then lifting into the headwind and the clouds above us.

FlyingIFR
My view (or lack there of) leaving Anchorage.

My view of Anchorage quickly disappeared. Convinced that I wasn’t going to see much for a while, I slipped my headphones inside of my noise proof earmuffs, turned on my favorite playlist, and grabbed my new leather bound journal from my bag between my feet. In a daze created by the combination of sleep deprivation, adrenaline, and raw change, I opened to the first page, and wrote:

“As I sit in this plane and watch water droplets from the melting snow roll past my co-pilot window, I am amazed with who You are, God.

It amazes me that I’m in Alaska—in this plane. It amazes me that this little metal box is somehow flying through the sky… It amazes me that my pilot knows where we’re going because the snow/fog/cloud mix is so thick that I can’t see anything around us. My memory knows what this mountain pass looks like from last summer, and yet this trip is so different. There are no mountains or glaciers to ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhhh’ at; I can’t see anything running in the wetlands below. There is just here, and just now; just You and me (and this really funny guy named Lyle).

I don’t know where I’m going, God. (Literally, and figuratively.) I can’t see what’s happening around me. I don’t know what any of these buttons, lights, or levers in this plane do. But I know that You are God, and that You are Good. Oh, and that You are somehow holding us up, as if this plane was sitting in your hands… And if that’s the case, I love that you are keeping things interesting with this insane turbulence; I love that you always shake things up.”

When I wrote that, I didn’t understand that Lyle was flying IFR—by his instruments and not his eyes.

I didn’t understand the difference between IFR and VFR, even though I too was operating within my own type of IFR journey. After all, I knew that God was calling me to Alaska even though I couldn’t see why; I’d known that with every fiber of my being since that weird moment in church on Super Bowl Sunday.

I had spent the last seven months fine tuning my “instruments” through time with Jesus, setting up a “flight plan”, and learning who I was going to be on the journey with. I had been praying and crying and learning more and more what I looked like to walk by faith and not by sight.

I had plenty of people tell me (in not-so-many words) that I was a moron for leaving the life that I loved to follow Jesus to a tiny village I hardly knew. There were questions raised about practical things like “Do you really think that God is going to provide that outrageous amount of money?” regarding the raising of my own salary. Oh yeah, not to mention the obvious: “Why on earth would you go there when Jesus has so clearly been working through you in Denver? If God is ‘so good’ then why can’t He use you in a less dangerous place…?”

The questions were legitimate, and my answers hinging on faith often felt as if they weren’t. 

There were days (so many freaking days) when I doubted that God was Good—that He would provide… that He had a plan. Yet, even on the days when I doubted and I couldn’t see, I just tried to cling to Jesus and keep moving forward in faith. (Side note shout out to my roommates who laid in bed with me while I bawled on those nights and drug me back to Jesus in prayer, whether I wanted it or not. Y’all are the epitome of the church and the real MVPs.)

Yet because He is True to His callings and True to His promises, He provided in abundance financially, spiritually, and emotionally; even as I write this, looking out at the planes landing next to my house in Alaska, all I can do is laugh at how Good He really is.

He will never leave me, nor forsake me. (No matter how many times He has to reassure me of this.) He promises to be the Light before me, even when I can’t see more than a few feet in front of my face.

He has been my most reliable “instrument” as I have learned to fly out of my comfort zone with Him. His grace, His Love, His mercy; they are unfailing.

Even though it has been terrifying to blindly fly away from everything that I love, I have been unexplainably blessed by experiencing more of Him through it all.

That sounds cheesy; I know. But around these parts, it is so true. Because at the end of the day, when Bible class is over, our extra TLC programs and classes have been taught, the dishes are washed, and my girls are in bed, I sit in my house alone. Yet somehow I am not alone; I am with Him—experiencing more of His love in the silence and the darkness than I ever thought possible… Which is an answer to the exact prayer from Ephesians 3:14-20 that so many prayed over me as I left Denver…

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

It is terrifying to fly thousands of feet in the air, suspended by nothing but the faith that instruments will carry you on to your destination, and yet we do it all the time.

It is terrifying to be here alone sometimes, but by faith I maintain that I am not alone because I am with Jesus, my sweet Abba, and His Spirit.

And that faith? The renewed and deeper faith that kicks in when you are flying on faith in Christ alone? I can’t explain it. I don’t know how the heck God builds faith with faith. (It’s a pretty screwy system if you ask me.)

But what I do know is that flying by faith alone most beautiful, addicting feeling in the world and there is no place I’d rather be than here, in His Love. 

Where is He calling you to follow Him today? Will you choose to fly with Him, even if you can’t see what’s in front of you?

(Spoiler alert: you won’t regret it.)

Stinson

“He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body, we are not away from the Lord, for we walk by faith and not by sight.”

(2 Corinthians 5:5-7)