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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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”

To love a murderer on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, & every day after

Working at the Denver Street School has ruined me for murderers: I’ve come to realize I love them and it regularly breaks my heart.

A few years back, my vice-principal and I started a running text chain. Some days it’s a mix of teaching memes and funny student quotes, but there are other days where we somberly exchange news articles with headlines written about our students.

This year alone we’ve exchanged two articles. The first explained that a prior student had been arrested for killing his three-month old daughter (accidentally or not, we’re still not sure). The second was a list of criminal charges a student from two years ago is facing. As I write this, he is awaiting arraignment for nine felony charges– including first-degree murder, first-, second-, and third-degree assault, and menacing with a deadly weapon, among others.

Fuller and my weird text chain began in 2014 with information regarding the murder of one of our then-current students. It was reinstated four months after Johnny’s death when we exchanged news articles about the arrest of another then-current student who had tried meth, then proceeded to attempt to kill a police officer while under the influence.

I’m far from a news junkie, but when I see my kiddos’ faces on news channels or in my Facebook feed, I can’t help but sit enveloped in the articles and subsequent comments from the public.

“Let him burn in hell.”

“Public execution. Maybe even firing squad.”

“A disgrace.”

“A waste of space.”

These are the words that strangers have said about my students, my babies.

And every. single. time. that I’ve gotten sucked into the wormhole of comments from the public, I’ve sat, shaking as I read them through tears.

In those moments, I know I’m crying for my students, for their victims, for each of the families and the various communities involved in the incident. I cry because I don’t understand how my students have come to make the choices they’ve made. And no matter how hard I try, I know I’ll never be able to reconcile the reality of the brokenness of this world in my heart.

But just as I’ve cried tears of sadness, I’ve also screamed in rage. In those moments I’m unbelievably angry at my students for what they’ve done, for who they’ve allowed themselves to become. As time progresses, that anger subsides though, often leaving my heart puzzled.

The days go on, but at least for a little while my students’ faces stay in my news feed attached to those horrid headlines; follow-up articles are published, and with them, more horrid comments from people whom I would argue need better hobbies.

As I scroll through the articles and read the death threats and aggressive comments about the students I love, every ounce of me wants to scream back,

“You don’t know them! You don’t see their struggles! You don’t know the abuse they’ve suffered at home, the pain they carry in their hearts, or the ways they have been set up to fail in this world since they were in their mother’s wombs!” 

Let me be clear.

I have no desire to make excuses for my students or their actions, but in those moments I feel trapped between a rock and a hard place– between the seemingly reasonable expectations of human decency and the calling to love and defend the students Jesus has placed in my care.

Thus, in those moments of blinding, complex sorrow and rage, I sit, confused. Feeling a little bit helpless. Saddened by the fact that the only thing I can do is pray and schedule a visit at the county jail to see the students I love.

Because that’s just it. I love my kids. I will love my kids no matter what they do, no matter who they become. And I wish I could convince the rest of the world to do so as well.

Maybe I’m blind or naive, but those students? The ones in Fuller and my text-chain, in your Facebook feed? They’re human. They’re kids I’ve played football with at lunch. I’ve read their stories in my English classes– stories where their “fictional characters” struggle to be men and women of character in gang and drug infested worlds, in “fictional settings” that are strikingly similar to those of their author’s.

I’ve taken these students on leadership retreats to the mountains. I’ve watched them build snowmen and sled and giggle like little kids. I’ve watched them cry out of frustration when they can’t figure out their math homework and literally run screaming down the halls with excitement when they pass a test.

These young people who have made horrid choices– either one incidentally or as a string of other poor choices– these people who have taken another’s life?

They’re young men and women I honestly trust with mine.

They’re sweet and goofy; they’re so much smarter than the choices they’ve made or the stigmas the world placed on them before (or after) they ended up in the orange jumpsuits they now wear.

It’s because of this that I’ve spent several of my planning periods this year tracking some of my favorite former students through the Colorado judicial system. Last week as I waited for the Denver county inmate search website to load, a meme popped up in that text chain, and I couldn’t help but laugh at just how weird this job of mine is.

As I stared at the slowly loading page, the comments from old news articles flashed through my mind, as did this old snapchat– a picture of the student I was trying to locate–

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In that moment, I glanced around my empty classroom, then down at the Bible on my desk and I was reminded that loving murderers probably isn’t a common aspect of most people’s jobs; in fact, outside of DSS, it’s probably rather rare. And outside of the relationships with Jesus that our school is built upon, I doubt that it’s possible.

But isn’t that just it?

Jesus had a heart for murderers. That’s what Easter is about.

The fact that King of the Universe came down to save His people from themselves and the sin that entangles them even though we couldn’t deserve it less.

Our perfect, benevolent Jesus came to rescue His people in love and restore them to relationship with the Father, even though they shouted, “Let Him be crucified!”, “I do not know Him!”, and “Do not release Him, the innocent, but Barabbas, the robber!” just days earlier.

Jesus came to save us even though we shout those words at Him and at each other with our lips, actions, and inactions every day.

We are murderers.

Each and every one of us.

And if we refuse to acknowledge that truth in our pride or arrogance, our own virtue or religiousity, then I firmly believe that we’ll miss out on the heart of Jesus.

If we can’t look at our sin, our own capability and guilt of murder against our King– and those created in His image– then we are in danger of missing so much of the beauty of Jesus and what He has done for us, even though we are so undeserving.

May we become a people who look upon the crucifix with a more full understanding of our sin, so that we might relish in the goodness and love of the truth that followed three days later– the words that continue to shake me to my core this morning: “He is not here; Christ has risen, just as He said He would.” (Matthew 28:6)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

(Romans 5:6-8)

 

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.

When the only path through grieving is… through…

On the heels of a year where the Lord taught me to live vulnerably in tight-knit community and through writing my heart out on this website, I came to a place at the beginning of last summer where words felt entirely inadequate to express the thoughts and emotions that flooded my body on a daily basis. In the span of two months, I had unexpectedly lost a dear friend, my “adopted little brother” in a motorcycle accident and a childhood friend to cancer. As I traveled last summer, I continued to journal and write privately, figuring that this lack of “words to share” would pass in due time.

When I resumed my “normal” life in Colorado in August, I felt strongly that I was being called into a season of silent processing with the Lord and I decided that a break from public writing was what I needed to do to respect that season of life. But as time here in Colorado wore on and transition turned to stability, my ability (and desire) to vulnerably share “where I was at” began to wane. Over time, I closed into myself, shutting nearly everyone else out so dramatically that most days I didn’t know how not to. (Aside: If I’ve done this to you, please, please, please know I didn’t mean to hurt you if I have. I want to sit down over a cup of coffee with you. I want to mend relationships. I want you to know that as much as it sounds like a cheesy relationship line or an excuse, “It’s not you. It’s never been you. It’s me. I’m a mess.”)

In the days that preceded the disappearance of my friends and our plane in December, I felt a shift occurring in my heart; I knew my season of silent processing was being called to an end. I knew I was supposed to start writing again. And yet, when the plane went down, a part of me went down with it. Obviously, the part of my heart that held Scott, Kyle, Zach, & Kaitlyn dear, but the articulate part of me was also lost that day.

For months, I’ve struggled with and through depression, trying and failing to express anything of real value without bursting into tears. Despite feeling the Lord pressing me to write or express my heart in whatever way I could, I couldn’t do it. Time and time again, as I’ve tried to write, I instead closed my laptop and retreated back into my own introverted brain.

In those moments, a part of me knew I was being disobedient to what God was calling me to in my grief. I knew closing myself off wasn’t a true solution to any of my problems, and yet in this complex season, I didn’t know how to stop.

Thus, I’ve spent my weeknights and weekends largely holed away from community, avoiding my laptop, and wrestling with the Lord in coffee shops and counseling, or while crying with my roommates on the Yarrow kitchen floor.

In the individual nights of these last few months I’ve felt the extent of just how little I have “it” together (whatever “it” is…). And to be honest? This realization of the extent of my weakness paired with this “calling” to be vulnerable in that weakness?? It’s scared the living daylights out of me.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know how to not tell other’s stories while telling mine because they’re so intertwined. I’m scared of unintentionally drudging up pain for the people I love, those who are walking through this complicated season of grief too. I don’t want to be “that sad writer” or ever come across as though I’m seeking pity, because I beg you to realize, I’m not. 

I so desperately want to feel “normal” again. I want to stop crying. I want to stop grieving from the core of my being.

But that’s not where the Lord has me… 

Instead, I’m here in this weird in-between– the place where I thought I was finally “okay” enough to attend a symposium on gospel-centered grieving and most days am more hopeful than I am bitter with God.

I’m here, in the muck and the mire of loss and redemption, joy and grief.

I’m desperately seeking contentedness with God’s plan when in actuality? I feel like I can’t handle being content with this new reality without the people I love. And the mere thought of trying to do so spiraled me into a panic attack Friday night at said grief symposium where I ended up running out of the sanctuary and ugly crying/ snotting into a close friend’s hair on our church steps.

This season isn’t cute.

It’s rendered me a mess. One giant freaking paradox.

Yet daily throughout this season, I have heard the invitation of Jesus to the weary in Matthew 11– “Come to Me.” And privately, I have. Through His sweet grace that I know I possess and yet so desperately crave more of, I come to Him a little more each day.

Today’s come to Jesus moment has been through obedience and tears; it is through a long overdue introduction/ continuation to this convoluted season through writing although I’d much rather remain silent and still, alone with Him and my little blue journal.

It comes through breathing life back into this dusty, neglected blog and it comes in the same vein as the words I’ve read time and time again this year: “The only way out of grief is through.”

Part of me hopes that maybe writing again will be the beginning of the end of this messy chapter. Most of me knows that more than likely it’s not; but I simply hope am confident that somewhere in this mess, in this journey through grief, I will see more of Jesus and I pray somehow you do too…

{To be continued}

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

(Psalm 27:13)