Like the Lotus flower: When you find yourself standing in a field of sewage…

7 time zones in 3 weeks, sleep deprivation, transition, anger, loss, the roller coaster of grief: I’ve written about it all before, but as a refresher on context, that’s exactly where I was when my feet hit Cambodian soil for the first time in June 2016.  I’ve mentioned before that I was an emotional hurricane, but somehow that phrase still seems to fall short when I try to explain where I was at mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually when I boarded my plane leaving Denver last June. I’d considered backing out of the trip last minute. I tried to keep my little hurricane heart in Colorado, but the Lord scooted me onto a plane, despite my best intentions.

I was so broken and exhausted by my own inner turmoil leaving for my month abroad last year that I slept the entire 20 hours worth of flights from Denver to Siem Reap and a good 10 to 12 hours worth of layovers in between. When we finally made it to our hotel in Cambodia, I slept for another 7 hours. For those of you that are as bad at math as I am, that’s roughly 40/48 hours unconscious to the world. Like I said, not exactly the healthiest I’ve ever been…

Our first few days (weeks?) in Southeast Asia, my head was reeling.

The traffic. The pollution. The incessant noise– both in the streets and in the hotel rooms that I shared with my students. I was trapped in my own bitter inner monologue with the Lord and whenever I managed to get outside of my own brain for a moment, I flipped into sensory overload and wanted nothing more than to climb deep inside myself to find silence. But the deep inner silence I was so used to finding with the Lord was no where to be found.

Restlessness became my constant companion and the things that I usually did to process emotional upheavel (ie. running and writing) were next to impossible given the insane schedule (or lack there of…) I was keeping with my youth group kids. With my ability to find quiet refuge inside myself gone, time with the Lord was my only hope at peace and quiet. But to be honest? I saw Him as the cause of so much of my pain, and as such, running to Him didn’t have the appeal it usually did.

As I wrestled with/ against God/ myself while traveling throughout Cambodia last summer, the combination of the magnificent sights and temples, the brokenness and poverty in the country, and the whirlwind adventure of it all, overwhelmed me. As did the smell of durian and fish that wafted through the oppressive 100º heat/ 80% humidity combo everywhere we went. (Woof. I hope to God I’ll get the memory of that smell out of my mind someday…) I saw the Lord do glorious things and met kindred spirits on the other side of the earth that summer, but oh was I on sensory overload 25/7.

One of my most vivid memories of that season is simply of me laying in bed one night texting my best friend back in the States saying something to the tune of:

“I love it here, but my heart hurts and my head is spinning and I feel like my nerves are on the outside of my body. Everything, everyone I interact with touches them.  I’m tired and I feel raw.”

~~~

By the grace of God, my return to Cambodia this summer felt different, even though so many of my life’s circumstances and the questions I was asking the Lord before and during the trip were similar.

After a year of wrestling with the Lord and allowing Him to do some major surgery on my heart, mind, and body, I finally felt like my nerves were safely tucked back where they belonged– protected by layers of well fought for muscle.

On this year’s trip the sting of loss was still present as our team spent the 6 month anniversary of the plane crash that took our loved ones Home on Cambodian soil. Just like last year (and any youth missions trip, really) there were still many tears shed and many late night heart-to-hearts had. Many of the students I led were returning team members; although thankfully they’ve matured a bit and no one made me suffer through a rousing rendition of “99 Bottles of Root Beer on the Wall” this year… Praise Ye the Lord.

86762780-D4B1-495E-9F64-9D5449290062.JPGThe Cambodian traffic structure (or significant lack there of) still blew my mind this year as I watched motos with boxes stacked 5-high zip in and out of traffic, evading trucks with live chickens hanging upside down from the sides of their beds headed to market. The smell of durian still permeated the night markets’ air, and I watched yet again as one of my teenage boys teased a live crocodile with his GoPro. (Boys will be boys and I’m sure I’ll have more grey hair because of them.)

Each of these familiarities were gifts in their own quirky ways as I returned to the country that had captured my heart so deeply last summer. And yet, the Lord brought about His deepest mercy this summer to me in an unfamiliar and unexpected way.

Everyday and everywhere we drove in Cambodia there were Lotus flowers growing in the muddy ditches and fields on the sides of the roads. I realize it’s a weird thing to say, but the Lotus is my second favorite flower and somehow the Lord used it to speak tremendous grace over my mildly-reeling heart this June.

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Photo credit: Evan Wardell 

The Lotus is a flower marked by resiliency and its ability to grow into something breathtakingly beautiful out of some of the most murky, disgusting water on earth. Once the flower emerges from the darkness and begins to bloom, it does so slowly, opening one petal at a time until the entire flower is open to the world.

I love these flowers so much that I had a little chalkboard in my classroom last year that read, “Just like the Lotus flower…” as a reminder to my students and myself to be patient throughout the process of growth and the opening of themselves that would happen within my classroom walls.

After hearing me talk about that chalkboard and “Oooo” and “Ahhhh” over the flowers all trip long, I walked out of a rest station to find my youth group students in a swampy field snapping pictures of the giant flowers growing out back for me. As I walked out to meet them, my Chacos began to sink into the mud and I noticed a particular smell. I turned to say something to my co-leader and caught sight of pipes running from the back of the building where the restrooms were into the swampy field we were all standing in.

A field of sewage.

I was standing in a literal field of crap, watching my students take photos of the most beautiful flowers I’d ever seen in my life. (If that juxtaposition isn’t some kind of metaphor for what the Lord is doing in my life in this season, I don’t know what is…)

I instantly doubled over laughing and asked the kids if they wanted me to give them the bad news now or wait a minute until we weren’t standing in the water anymore. They chose ignorance and I began to usher them to our bus as I laughed to myself.

As we were walking out of the field, one of my boys leaned over to me and said,

“I know we were just standing in poop water. But getting a picture of those flowers for you was worth it. I think Jesus told me that you needed that picture.”

Ohhh my heart. Those were some of the weirdest, yet most sincere and sugary-sweet words I’ve ever heard come out of a 15-year-old boy’s mouth.

I don’t know if this year’s early rainy season was the impetus for the mass blossoming of the Lotus flowers, or whether those pink and white beauties were there all along last June and I was just too blinded by my own raw nerves, emotions, and exhaustion to see them. I tried to get an answer but I never stumbled across a botanist who spoke English in my time in Cambodia, and let’s just say that my Khmai is below-sub-par at best.

Either way, I know the Lotus flowers were God’s grace to me this summer– a tangible reminder that just as my students and I are able to testify to the undying Goodness and Faithfulness of God in the midst of a season of great heartache and loss, that that same God is growing good things in and around all of us through all of that “crap” too.

“For I [am learning to] consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”

(Romans 8:18-19)

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Growing in doubt

In my 10 months in the Alaskan bush, I only saw fresh flowers once. I never knew how much I cherished having green plants and flowers in my home until I moved to the scenic middle of nowhere, where the closest vegetables, fruits, and flora to me were 165 miles and a flight away in Anchorage.

At times, I became so desperate to have foliage in my Willows
home that I took to cutting pine branches and willow buds off of trees and “potting” them in old growlers around my kitchen.

Last March, the winter ice thawed off of the trees and village trails, giving way to blossoms and ankle-deep mud– a sure fire sign that spring had sprung in Alaska. As I walked the trails to and from the local school every day and felt the thick mud tug on my goulashes, I also began to feel a familiar tug in my little Coloradoan heart– the desire to plant. The desire to see fresh, green growth.

I’d made the conscious decision when I was 17 that I would become a woman who gardened. And thus, every year since, I’ve cleared a semi-sacred afternoon in March to plant seedlings for what I hoped would one day become an autumn harvest. In years past, I’ve proceeded to take over the dining room table, window sills, and any other sunny surfaces of the houses I’ve lived in, filling them with trays of dirt and seedlings (which I’ve learned my lesson about trying to plant in the ground until after Memorial Day in Colorado…).

gardenPremature planting isn’t the only lesson I’ve learned from gardening though; over the years, the Lord has taught me so many sweet lessons about being more patient with my DSS students and allowing death to occur in my life so I can taste the sweetness of the resurrection. He has spoken to my soul through mud pies within that little picket fence and I swear there’s a clarity to His voice that comes when my little hippie soul is barefoot in a garden and my hands are covered in fresh earth…

That clarity is what my soul longed for last spring. As I walked those muddy trails home from work, my heart physically ached for the familiarity of my annual tradition. But due to the fact that I was surrounded by hundreds of miles of tundra and moss, I continued to cut willow buds on my “commute” and struggled to be content in the season the Lord had placed me in– one where my only interaction with dirt came from the slurping noises of mud as it threatened to suck my rain boots right off my feet.

My inability to physically plant a garden in the face of said longing made sense for that season, as Jesus was teaching me to desire other things. As such, my longing for familiarity and tiny garden seedlings went unfulfilled for my entire season of life in Port Alsworth.

In fact, my only opportunity to physically plant anything in 2016 came at beginning of summer, the beginning of a season of death that seemed to muddy most everything about my heart for the remainder ArlenesMarigoldof the year. This opportunity to plant a garden caught me entirely off guard because in the blink of an eye, I’d been called away from Alaska and was on my hands and knees in my “adopted mom’s” flowerbed in Iowa. As she worshipped through tears and planned her son’s funeral, I knelt outside the kitchen and planted her marigolds and petunias.

While tenderly planting Arlene’s flowers was an answer to the longing in my heart to be reunited with soil, those flowers were bitterly watered with tears. Those tears, ones that stemmed from pain and doubt, mixed with the soil, and created the metaphorical mud weighed heavy on my heart.

Last week, I sat on our back porch one afternoon as I struggled to process that mud and doubt that still lingers in my heart, even 10 months into this strange season of loss and readjustment. Between sentences in my journal, I stared at the empty garden in the corner of our yard.

As I did so, images of me walking the muddy paths of Port Alsworth, kneeling in Arlene’s garden, and of my own hands tending the Yarrow garden in years past flashed through my mind. In that moment, my throat constricted. Grief threatened to overwhelm me.

For better or for worse, I shook off that feeling, set my journal down, and took a walk down the street to Home Depot. I spent the rest of that day doing what my heart so desired this time last year. Acutely aware of how thankful I was for the familiarity of my own tradition, I thumbed seeds into trays of dirt in the sunshine and ceremoniously prayed over my little seedlings.

Grow, little seeds. Thrive. Struggle up through the dirt. Come toward the sun.

As I planted and half-mumbled my prayers, words from Hannah Anderson’s new book Humble Roots came to mind:

“We must create space for questions and doubt that lead to growth. But to do this, we must be comfortable with questions and uncertainty ourselves.” “This process can only happen in relationship; it can only happen as [we] depend on Him” (p. 130-131).

It’s exactly that space– space where I’ve learned to question, wrestle, and doubt– that the Lord has dug out and created in my life this year; even though I admittedly wanted nothing to do with it.

Since those late May days on my knees in the Miller’s flowerbed, I’ve wrestled with doubts I’m not proud to admit that I’ve had. I’ve cried and screamed, asking God if He’s real. If He’s Good. If He even cares. If I can trust Him. Where He was in the midst of tragedy, cancer, transition, loss, and death after death.

But it has been through this process and my hokey tradition of planting yet another year’s garden, that I have found Him in the dirt and myself in the seeds.

In the winter months, I felt half-dead, silent, dormant, awaiting new life to spring forth. Yet I fought the Lord every time He tried to root me to Him in the darkness. Little did I know, the dark hole in the soil, that place of questioning and doubt, was exactly the environment that would allow my seeds and questions to find nourishment and Truth in Him, and thrive.

Every morning as I water my little trays of seedlings and turn them toward the Colorado sunshine, I’m reminded that I’m not the one responsible for making them root down into the soil or stretch up toward the sun any more than I’m capable of controlling my own journey out of the mud and muck of grief.

Jesus is faithful to allow growth in its time, even when the precursor to growth feels a lot like being buried in the dirt and covered with manure. 

“For neither the one who plants nor waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:7)

 

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)

Fresh

Typically, I’m not a big “foodie”. Don’t get me wrong– I appreciate eating things that are delicious. But having survived off of my own (rather dismal) cooking for years, food has just become something that keeps me alive– not necessarily something that I go to for enjoyment.

Or at least that was the case until I had a vast array of fresh, California produce at my finger tips this month. Everywhere you turn around out there, there are gigantic, juicy fruits and vegetables and I must say, I was in heaven! (I mean, when our family had a huge block party for the 4th of July, I bar-be-qued corn, mangoes, and pineapples– not because I’m a super healthy person (although I wish I was), but because the produce there is fresh from the source and unlike any food that you can find in Colorado.) And knowing that I was about to return home, I crammed my backpack full of fresh produce and looked like a complete nutjob on the airplane.

But in a weird way, I’m glad I rebelled against TSA’s “suggested items not to pack in your carry-on” list, as I received more joy out of my smuggled treats than I had anticipated.

You see, last week while munching on a smuggled California kiwi and doing some work for my summer job, I had a sermon podcast from my home church, Scum of the Earth, running in my headphones.

The topic of the sermon? Living closer with God

The verses that Mike (Scum’s pastor) felt the Holy Spirit leading him to? John 15:4-5

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

At first, I just giggled at the coincidence between my snack and the fact that I was listening to my pastor speak about fruit before continuing on to plug information about some software company into its respective email. But as the sermon went on, I began making more and more connections between what Mike was saying and where I currently was in relationship to God.

The first connection: The relationship between fresh fruit and its source. The fruit in California tastes better because it is brought to me shortly after being removed from its vine/tree/root. The farmer harvests (is that the proper term for something that’s not chili? I don’t know… #Mexicanproblems) the crop right at its peak ripeness and because it has a shorter distance to travel before it lands in my hands, it is sweeter. My snack gets to remain attached to its source and be nourished longer, and therefore continues to grow and become better and better.

The second connection: The relationship between my life and my Source.

I don’t know about you, but I can feel a difference in myself when I spend time with God and when I don’t. If God and I aren’t in communication either overtly or subconsciously, suddenly, “old, ghetto me” peeks out of hiding. I get easily annoyed by the little things, short-tempered, overly snarky, and if enough time goes by, just down-right mean. And while I’m not proud to admit it, toward the end of my last stay in California, I was beginning to get revert-igo and was sliding right back into those old characteristics.

Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the “fruit” that John 15 is referring to “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”…and as I grumpily sat working on a coffee shop patio, listening to Mike speak, I was lacking almost all of these.

Why? It’s simple: I wasn’t actively in communication with God.

As Mike says in the aforementioned sermon, “Not to advance is to retreat. When does a plant stop growing? When you stop watering it and it starts dying. There is no middle ground here.”

I was grumpy, impatient, and lacking in joy because I wasn’t watering my spiritual plant. I was allowing myself to die, day by day, choice by choice.

As someone who tried to plant a garden in her classroom and accidentally killed it by not watering it over spring break, you would think I would have this elementary principle of gardening down pat.

But, I guess I don’t…

My last few days in California, and even for my first few days back home, I wasn’t intentional about tending to my relationship with God. Sometimes I would wake up late and forget to have quiet time in the midst of a chaotic morning. Other times, I was too apathetic to pick up my Bible instead of my iPad on my break or late at night.

We’ve all been there.

But unlike my classroom garden that I didn’t exactly mourn after I killed it, my relationship with God is important to me. Who I am in Him and whether I am doing His work or not, is important to me.

Too important for me to simply stop watering it and allow myself to shrivel away.

So yes, I’m a sucky gardener, but I’m making an effort to, well… make an effort.

Where are you with God today? Are you picking up something that is going to draw you closer to Him? Or are you allowing yourself to shrivel up and die one decision at a time?

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

Philippians 4: 6-7 (The Message)

(If you’re interested in hearing the wonderful sermon I’ve mentioned, the podcast can be found in the Scum archives here. It’s worth a listen, I promise.)