How deep is Your love?

I took the summer “off” from writing. My reasoning was complicated:

1)  Most days I honestly didn’t have words to articulate the mixed bag of hope/ pain/ joy/ nausea/ excitement/ roller-coaster-y grief that my heart had become as I transitioned from Alaska to Iowa to Colorado to (and through) Asia and back again.

2) Traveling through 18 homes / hotels in 5 countries and 7 states in 2 1/2 months felt exactly like the run-on sentence that this is; it was exhausting. Plus, that much transition didn’t exactly lend to a stable internet connection or quiet writing space.

3) And probably most intentionally, my absence from writing was due to the fact that I had the glorious opportunity to stop analyzing the world around me for a while and simply experience the Lord’s beauty in it first hand.

And experience it to the fullest, I did.

I now know what it’s like to run through knee deep flood waters in a Cambodian city late at night shouting, “We’re on a mission! We’re gonna die…” all while laughing hysterically. Our insane laughter was partially because we were being splashed by motos (barely) passing us with a foot margin and partially because I was nervous about stepping onto a downed power line in the murky water below me and electrocuting myself to death.

That night as lightening crackled in the sky overhead, I ran through the streets of Phnom Penh with my co-leader and one of our 16-year old students. Our student had heard the Lord ask him to donate his guitar and book of worship music to a college-age sister-in-Christ (whom he had met only once) so she could start a worship school in a country where only 1% of the population knows Christ; he was thrilled that the Lord had called him to partner with her endeavor and couldn’t even wait until morning to selflessly give up his prized possession.

We arrived at her apartment sopping wet that night and stood in the rain, throwing pebbles at her window, screaming, “Ravii! Ravii come to the window! It’s the Alaskans! Come down! We have a gift for you!” as though we were in a movie or something. Eventually she emerged from the front door and stood with her jaw dropped as my student presented her with the guitar and sheet music. “God is good,” were the only words she said. I stood back and smiled as she stared at the guitar in her hands, saying those words over and over and over again.

IMG_5909I now know the depth of laughter that can cross language barriers when you’ve been befriended by a tiny first grade Thai girl who has chosen you to color with her on the sidelines of her friends’ game of tag because her club foot doesn’t allow her to run. Conversely, I know how absolutely hopeless it feels to stare into her deep brown eyes and pray for her foot to be miraculously healed, only to see that God clearly has other plans for her. At least, for the time being.

This summer the Lord turned strangers on cross-country flights into new friends. He blessed me with the opportunity to hear their stories of courage and redemption as they’ve escaped realities of war I don’t even want to imagine.

There were nights where I sat silently, holding three different women– all of whom are incredibly dear to my heart– as they cried and grappled with the unexpected death of family members. There simply aren’t words in those situations, no matter how frequently they come your way.

IMG_5880Throughout June I prayed as I stood in the Indian ocean, above the border walls of “closed” countries, in school yards, in markets, and under surging waterfalls. In those moments I heard the Lord speak louder than ever before. But I’ve also been face down on the floor, begging Him to speak and heard nothing but silence in return.

The list of things I saw the Lord do this summer seems infinite. While I wish with everything in me that I could relay those stories to those of you reading this… I simply can’t.

There aren’t enough words in the English language for me to explain just how deep and powerful the Love of Jesus has proven itself to be in my life; there aren’t words to do the glory of the Lord justice.

The best way I can explain these last few months (or really, this last year) is to say that adventuring in the benevolent affection of the Father for any period of time is a lot like what I would imagine scuba diving to the deepest depths of the sea to be. There are things down there that don’t (and won’t) make sense to those who have only ever swam near the shoreline or sat in the ocean in a boat.

In my imagination and this metaphor there are fish with lights hanging off of their faces Finding-Nemo-style and majestic unnamed organisms few people have ever seen. Similarly, in reality, there is spiritual battle and victory in Christ, pain and miraculous healing that does take place (even if I’m not the one to see it), and abundantly more grace than I could ever convey.

I understand that as I write this, my words could come off arrogantly, but please know that is not my heart. I long for you to don your own scuba gear and dive into the deep, dark metaphorical waters and explore them with the Lord so you too can see and experience the things mere words cannot explain. For those types of experiences aren’t likely to happen in our comfort zones where we feel safe or from boats where can see the shore.

The risk associated with following the Lord to unfamiliar, deep, dark places is great– regardless of what that looks like for you. But I dare say the risk of not going, of being lulled into complacency and comfort, or “staying put” because of fear, is much greater. 

Because yes, adventure is out there, but adventure for the sake of itself is not the point.

The ‘point’ can be found only in Jesus’ Love and it is beyond what my heart can comprehend or my brain can explain. All I know is that we begin to discover the depths of Christ’s love when we’re willing to go to the deep places where we feel like our faith may fail.

(In fact, your faith likely will fail. Mine did, more times than I would ever care to admit. Like the night before I boarded the plane to Asia when I dumped everything I owned on the floor of the Yarrow House and bawled, asking God the scariest series of questions I’ve ever asked in my life. Alas, that is a story for another time…)

But our loving Abba-Father? Our Jesus? He will never fail you.

His love only deepens, the further you dive in.

“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 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.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

(Ephesians 3:14-21)

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By the word of our testimony

I hated the old wooden pews in my family’s uber traditional Mexican church growing up. If I think about them too long, I can still feel the haunting pain in my tush incurred by sitting on those benches for hours during Sunday service.

By the time we sat in those pews, my family had broken away from their formal Catholic upbringing and had somehow made their way to what I can only describe as a small, “free-form” congregation of believers in our hometown. The pastor’s teaching was remarkable—I knew that even as a child—but the Sunday sermon was only a small part of the three-hour service.

There was worship and “specials”, communion and flag twirling, praise dancing and scripture reading, and after all that was said and done, and the message had been delivered, anyone and their mom was given the opportunity to take the mic and share their testimony.

“What is the Lord doing in your life right now?” A deacon would ask as hand after hand would wave in the air, motioning for the microphone. By this point, I was usually slumped down in my pew, sitting on my hands, praying that the feeling would come back to my rear end. Testimony time seemed like torture because ohhhh can sweet old abuelitas and tias talk and tell stories for days…

In all honesty, I don’t remember any of those stories about God’s goodness. I was young and ignorantly uninterested, solely focused on trying to escape the wooden torture devices we sat on. As my cousins and cousin’s cousins stood to speak, my mind wandered to the green chili smothered feast we would eat if we ever made it out of that sanctuary.

If you were to fast forward roughly fifteen years, you would’ve found me in a similar setting this weekend at Tanalian’s Spring Family Conference. (But praise the Lord our little village church has chairs instead of those horrific wooden benches…)

A friend of mine stood at the podium the first night of the conference and read Revelation 12 to a room of two hundred-some Alaskans–

“Now a war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for their loved their lives not even unto death.’” (Revelation 12:7-12)

When he was done reading, he looked up and said, “We have conference speakers this weekend, but our hope is that the majority of the speaking will be done by you. No one here will negate that Southwestern Alaska is dark. Some of you came here from villages where you’re the only Christians or where there are other believers but no pastor or church… This weekend as we gather, we long for you to be fed, but also hope you’ll beat back the darkness by sharing your testimony. We want to hear what the Lord is doing throughout Alaska; for the darkness has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb and and will continue to be by the word our testimony.”

Just like that, there was a steady stream of believers from all different ages and backgrounds who took the podium and shared some of the most powerful testimonies I’ve ever heard.

TreasureTestimony.jpgSome spoke in English and some in Yup’ik (the predominate Native language of our region). When simple words couldn’t express what needed to be said, songs sung with an acoustic guitar said what individuals couldn’t manage to. It was so powerful that every ounce of emotion in my body caught in the back of my throat and for once in my life I couldn’t even cry.

One man, a doctor in the village of Dillingham, stood before us and softly said, “I have pictures of my nephew being baptized in that bay, just out that window… He went home from here and later died a violent death. It was horrible. It was hard. But because of Jesus, we have hope. Hope changes things. Prayer changes things. Let us not be afraid to pray for people. Our family has confidence and hope that my nephew is with God because someone, somewhere wasn’t afraid to pray with him, just once, and that turned into so much more. Let us be a people who pray. Let us pray for revival in our villages.

The mother of one of my students followed him at the microphone, speaking between heavy sobs. “Our people are wounded. Deep. Deep down. So deep. There wounds we have caused ourselves and generational wounds on top of those. But I’m here at this conference and I’m standing here now because I want our people to get better. I want so badly for them to know Jesus and be free from the anger, shame, scorn, devastation, lies, alcoholism, denial, fear, and drug abuse that has kept them captive for too long. Pray for revival in the ‘up-river’ people; pray for our people.

I sat and watched, my momma-heart bubbling with pride, as my TLC students took the mic, reading scripture and rejoicing in the freedom and new lives they have found in Christ this year.

I listened with my jaw dropped as a woman, who I knew to be a recently active persecutor of the church several villages down, stood and publicly apologized for the way she had treated the believers in her village. “I was wrong, I see that now. I just want to follow Jesus. I just want my kids to read the Bible and know God’s Word…”

The testimonies and pleas for prayer went on for hours each day and it was glorious.

As if she could read my mind, my neighbor learned over and poked me in the ribs Sunday morning, smiled, and said, “It’s just like being in Mexican church, huh?”

“It’s just like home.” I laughed out in a whisper. “These people, they’re family… But thank God we don’t have those old school pews that makes your tush fall asleep. These chairs make testimony time so much more enjoyable.”

Would you join our family here in Alaska and pray for revival?

Pray that people would be awakened to the beauty of the Lord in our villages.

Pray for strength and grace for our isolated and persecuted brothers and sisters.

Pray that the church would be burning to tell the world of the hope that we have because of who Christ is and what He has done for us.

Pray we would live out of the truth of Revelation 12—that we can beat back the darkness by the power of our testimony. And that the testimonies we hear would stir us to a deeper love for Jesus, moving us to action to pursue those living in the darkness that settles in where there is a void of His light.

When the proverbial plane crashes

I knew the Lord had brought me to Alaska, but the end of first semester was a train wreck. (Or to be more “bush-correct”, you could say it was a proverbial plane crash.) By the time it was over, I was beyond burnt out. I was struggling with what I can now recognize as compassion fatigue and PTSD. I was spiritually overwhelmed, constantly feeling like I was losing the battle against the strongholds of addiction that raged in my house. By the time I’d realized just how far in over my head I was, it was too late. My little TLC plane had fallen out of the sky and was in flames around me.

I sat in our house with my face down on my kitchen table and my hands entangled in my hair, sobbing at one in the morning. Every few minutes I would catch a word or two from the serious conversation between my boss and one of my students in the other room.

I pulled my face up off the table and caught a glimpse of myself in the window. The woman staring back at me was gaunt; the way her black mascara had dripped over her sunken-in cheeks scared me. I stared in shock. Who is that woman in the window? That can’t possibly be what I look like. I tried to turn my head to examine myself from another angle but my muscles were so tense my neck wouldn’t turn. Instead I laid my forehead back on the table and ugly-cried until my stomach hurt. What are you doing Lord?

Eventually I ran out of tears and simply stared at the grain of the wood in my table. I couldn’t figure out where my “good” God was. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that He would ever lead me (or had actually led me) somewhere that felt so unsafe.

Lord, have mercy. Please. Where are you? I pleaded on repeat, as if those were the only words I knew. The first half of David’s Psalm 77 rang in my ears.

My boss eventually emerged from the other room. Lowering himself into the chair next to mine, he asked how I was doing. Unhealthy. Unsafe. They were the only words I could choke out, even though I knew they didn’t make sense as an answer to his question. I tried to focus on the logistics of what I needed to do with my student, but as his lips moved, my brain wandered. I’m ‘doing Your work’, Lord. You brought me here. You gave these girls to me, and me to these girls. Yet I feel like I’m dying. How could you let this happen?

It’s every missionary’s worst nightmare—that moment when the prayers for protection and safety, the ones that people back at home prayed over you before you left, seem to have worn off.

In that moment I was left to wrestle with the fact that because God is sovereign, that this was exactly where He wanted me. He knew this would happen. He knew I would feel unsafe. He knew it would be dark and I wouldn’t be able to sense His presence, but somehow I had to trust that He was still there…

He had called me to the depths of myself—my deepest fears and wounds—in His loving goodness, for His ultimate glory. I knew the theology, yet there I was, weeping, begging God to show up and replace my suffering with a feeling of safety, even though I’d always said I would do whatever it took for the people around me to know the love of Christ…

~~~

Around these parts, we pray for our pilots in church on Sunday and before almost every meal. To us they’re not just pilots—they’re family, my friends, my friends’ husbands, my bosses, my students, me.

I’ve learned a lot about trusting the sovereignty of God from hearing pilots and their loved ones pray. Our pilots all have their fair share of plane crash stories—some minor, some major, all mildly terrifying. Yet when they pray, they ask for wisdom as they fly, not for safety, even though many of them understand what it feels like to be in a plane that’s going down.FlyingSidewaysThese men and women have been there; they’ve felt a complete lack of safety akin to what I felt in December.

They’ve all said, “Yes Lord, I want to follow you. I want to serve the people of Southwest Alaska by bringing them their groceries, the fuel they need to survive, and their loved ones, no matter the cost.” (After all, none of us could live and minister where we do if it wasn’t for our valiant bush pilots.) And thus, we cover our pilots in prayer, just as my church family in Colorado prayed for me as they sent me out as a missionary.

But even within that covering of prayer, many of them have walked away from a plane with it’s landing gear folded or it’s wings ripped off.

They know what it’s like to question God’s plan with every fiber of their being while simultaneously fighting to trust the theology and truth of His sovereignty. They’ve managed to praise God just moments after feeling the least safe they’ve felt in their lives. And they still wake up every morning and fly despite all of this because that’s what God’s called them to– even when it feels dangerous.

The prayers of our pilots have challenged me to stop praying for safety, and instead pray to be exactly where God wants me to be— even if it seems horrible and hard, maybe even traumatic at times.

What if we all prayed that way? For wisdom rather than safety, for His will rather than our own? It seems strangely reminiscent of The Lord’s Prayer if you ask me…

After all, Jesus never promised His disciples they wouldn’t suffer or be unsafe (Look at the life of Paul if you doubt me.) Similarly, the Lord never promised David that life, even life as a king, would be easy. (The beginning of Psalm 77 is pretty solid evidence that it wasn’t.) But God did promise He would be David’s refuge when the excrement hit the stone-age ventilation system… He never promised me that living in Alaska would feel safe, but through His word He has promised to be my refuge and physician when my proverbial plane crashes and I’m left climbing from the burning wreckage.

~~~

I woke up the morning after our proverbial plane crash, disheartened and dehydrated from crying every spare ounce of fluid out of my body. But being the stubborn woman I am, I was determined to salvage something (anything) from the wreckage. I threw my Bible and journal on the table I’d wept on just hours before, and got brutally honest with the Lord: “I don’t feel safe. I need to feel safe if You want me to stay here.”

Do you? Is safety the call I’ve put on your life, Kacy?

Etched below God’s rhetorical question in my journal are the words that I pray I’ll be able to live my life by, everyday–

Alright Lord, things might not “get better”. I’m coming to terms with that. It’s a very real possibility that You’ll continue to ask me to walk into (and live in) places that are hard and desolate, almost completely devoid of light, and call me to expose all of my pain so Your light might shine through this brokenness.

You might not deliver me from living in an unsafe environment, but I know this mess is a part of Your plan. And Abba, if You are going to use this hot mess to draw people in and glorify Yourself, then dammit, this is exactly where I want to be; safety or no safety…

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsake; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in You.”

(2 Corinthians 4:8-12)

 

Judas’ kiss: Lessons in betrayal and life

It was one of those “punch in the gut” nights that will likely be etched in my memory forever. One where, toward the end of the night, all I could do was laugh at the absolute absurdity of the situation at hand to remind myself that laughter and joy still existed, even though the darkness seemed to be winning.

I can still feel the way the bathtub dug into the back of my ribs as I sat outside it, wedged on the floor in the corner of a bathroom, stroking the hair of the violently ill, brokenhearted girl in my lap. After a few minutes, my laughter faded and I could hear my neighbor sitting outside the room, playing her guitar and beating back the spiritual darkness the way the Lord has gifted her most clearly– line by line, worship song by worship song. I leaned my head against the bathroom wall and sang along with her until I was crying so hard that words wouldn’t come out anymore.

I cried a lot that night.

I cried because my students were clearly hurting after the night’s events and their pain broke my heart. I cried because I was afraid, both of the natural consequences of my students’ actions and because I was afraid to be the “mom” of the situation– the one who would have to lovingly and logically discipline the students I adore. I cried because my expectations for the night had been broken, then seemingly lit on fire. But above all, I cried because the trust and relationships that I had been working to develop with my students had been shattered by lies and poor choices, and I felt incredibly betrayed.

Since coming to the TLC, I’d been warned of the “eye-twitch moment”, aka the moment when you lose control of your body from stress, exhaustion, or sensory overload, and your body starts to revolt against itself. That night, as I sat squished in the corner of a bathroom, holding one student and staring into the confused eyes of another who had come in to check on us, I blew past the infamous eye-twitch and graduated to the full-body rage tremor. My heart was indignant and overflowing with every emotion possible, but the only thing I could articulate was that I was hurt. And when I’m hurt, my Aztec heritage kicks in and my immediate emotional reaction is almost always ugly and hostile.

I wanted to scream, but instead I bit my lip, moved my eyes from those of my student to the floor, and in my best restrained mom voice, said, “Someday we’re gonna need to have a conversation about what happened tonight, but now is not that day. You’ve betrayed my trust and hurt me really deeply. You are forgiven and loved… but you should go…”.

That night, after the situation was mostly diffused and my students were in their respective beds, I knelt in my boss’ living room and bawled. “I. Don’t. Understand.” “I can’t trust them anymore.” “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to give up on them, but I feel so betrayed. I can’t take it.” “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.” Fragmented sentences and bodily fluids poured out of me while my boss patiently listened and handed me Kleenexes.

“I know you’re really hurt by what happened tonight, but our calling is to go the extra mile with those Jesus has brought to TLC. And that’s what we need to do.” My boss gently responded over my heaving sobs before going on to explain a few practical ways that we could “go the extra mile” with them.

I sat and listened, seething and angry at my students, and angry at the ugliness of my heart while he spoke. When he was done, I managed to sputter out, “I CAN’T go anywhere with them right now, let alone go an extra mile; I don’t want to…”

Betrayal at its core is a break of relationship and trust. And it sucks.

Betrayal makes us indignant in our woundedness. It causes us to go to the darkest, most stubborn places in our hearts, sit down, and throw a baby fit. And that’s exactly what I did.

That night as I knelt on that floor and talked with my boss, I spun into myself, dug my heels in, and internally refused to move forward in trying to rebuild those relationships– essentially becoming the antithesis of the calling Jesus has given those who have felt betrayal within ministry (or in life in general).

I couldn’t see it as my emotion and exhaustion clouded my brain that night in December, but I was reminded in the days following that Jesus is a God who understands betrayal on the deepest level possible.

After all, Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest confidants, someone in His inner circle. He knows what it is to have His carefully built trust shattered. Within that, He showed His followers how we’re supposed to respond to betrayal through His interactions with Judas. (And last time I checked, His response wasn’t to throw a baby fit, cry, or purely dwell in the betrayal itself. Not that I would ever do any of those things… Ahem; moving on…)

Jesus responded to betrayal with grace and love. From the dawn of time, Jesus knew that Judas would betray Him, but that betrayal wasn’t without purpose; it was so that His Father’s perfect plan for reconciliation of man and God could be carried out.

Let me repeat that– Jesus knew Judas was going to betray Him from the get go, and yet He invited him into His life and His heart anyway. Not only did Jesus take a life changing risk in building trust that He knew would one day be broken and lead to His death, but He treated Judas with just as much love and grace as He treated His other disciples. So much so in fact, that when Jesus said that one of the people at the last supper was going to betray Him, everyone began asking who the traitor was.

Had Jesus treated Judas, the traitor, any differently than the other disciples I feel like that moment around the table would’ve included a painfully obvious (and awkward) shift of everyone’s eyes to Judas. Alas, it was a mystery who the traitor was until Judas showed up in the garden of Gethsemane with the Roman soldiers, servants, and Pharisees.

Jesus loved Judas well until the bitter(sweet) end and at a great cost.

But because He was just as human as He is God, Jesus also experienced emotion, there by reminding us that the pain of betrayal is real and something to be taken to God in prayer, rather than something to be brushed aside. We see in Luke 22:42 as Jesus called out to God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” that there was agony in Jesus’ knowledge that He was about to be betrayed. But the story doesn’t end with Jesus sitting in His emotion or agony; it “ends” (and I use the term ends in the loosest way possible here) with loving sacrifice in the midst of betrayal.

A month later, I’m able to acknowledge that the feelings that accompanied my betrayal were completely valid, but I also realize that dwelling in my emotions and battle scars cannot be the way this specific story ends either.

At the end of the day, I have to apply the Gospel to feelings of disappointment and betrayal when they come. Shaking them off and expecting them to disappear won’t work. Dwelling in them and refusing to move forward in relationship with my students doesn’t do anyone any good. And withholding future love because I’m afraid my trust will be betrayed again? That might be the easiest way out, but it isn’t what Jesus has called me to as His follower.

Jen Hatmaker says it so well in her book Interrupted: When Jesus Wrecks Your Comfortable Christianity:

“Jesus came to the foulest, filthiest place possible (earth), a place full of ungrateful, self-destructive people who would betray Him far more than they’d love Him (a whole planet of Judases). He became the offering for people who would slander His name with ferocity, yet His grace was theirs for the asking until they drew their last breaths, even if all they could offer Him was a lifetime of hatred and one moment of repentance.

We don’t get to opt out of this gospel. We don’t get to opt out of living on mission because we might not be appreciated. We’re not allowed to neglect the oppressed because we have reservations about their discernment. We cannot deny love because it might be despised or misunderstood.”

When the pain of betrayal comes, we have to look to Jesus and remember that ours is a God who understands betrayal, yet chooses to love anyway.

In fact, He chooses to love me, even though I kiss His cheek every morning and manage to wander away and betray Him for prettier, shinier, “more exciting” gods by lunch time every day. Yet His love for me is constant and perfect, unfailing and unafraid of my imperfection.

Jesus never promises us that we won’t get wounded in doing His work, but He does promise that those wounds and imperfect moments will become beautiful and for His glory if we give them to Him, (even if we don’t get to see this in this lifetime).

“As I have loved you, love one another.”

John 13:34

How do you decorate gang warfare for Christmas?

Last Christmas was a mess— a really dark, emotional mess.

On the morning of December 10th I made great plans to sweep the brokenness and messiness of holiday life under a rug, slap a tree on top of it all, and have a Merry-freaking-Christmas. My students and I were going to be happy and we were going to enjoy Christmas, dang it! (Can you see the crazy, plastered smile on my face? No? Just ask one of my DSS girls… I’m sure they can imitate it pretty well given how many times they’ve seen my crazy-teacher-eyes around the holidays over the years.)

The very same day that I made this proclamation of well intentioned, forced joy, my Christmas dreams were crushed by the murder of one of my students.

Losing Johnny broke me, and I subsequently kinda gave up on Christmas for a while last year. I battled between depression, and the urge to fight my feelings and simply “fix” said depression. I so badly wanted Christmas cookies and cheerful music to fix everything like it always seemed to in those stupid ABC Family Christmas movies. So, I tried to force a few cheerful traditions as an attempt to pull myself out of the darkness and pain. But the truth was, while they distracted me temporarily, none of those things could fix my aching heart or the hearts of the students around me. If anything, my inability to fix the situation just shoved me further into an emotional meltdown.

I'm not even kidding you; Christmas was so broken last year that even my Christmas cookies came out in pieces.
I’m not even kidding you; Christmas was so broken last year that even my Christmas cookies came out looking like a mess.

A year later, life looks drastically different in the weeks leading up to Christmas. (Can I get a hallelujah?!)

But even now, twelve months and twenty-five hundred miles removed from the events of last Christmas season, my heart still hurts. It hurts because I still don’t know how to appropriately grieve the death of an eighteen year old who was trying to turn his life around. (And I feel stupid– like after a year of wrestling with the consequences and darkness of gang warfare, I should have this figured out…)

My heart hurts because even in the middle of nowhere, I’ve got a lot of really real crap going on in my heart, and I know you probably do too.

It’s the holidays, and therefore I’m dealing with my annual child-of-divorce, “I’m-going-to-have-to-pick-which-side-of-the-family-to-disappoint-on-Christmas” struggle. I’m wrestling with a deep, selfish desire to avoid the conflict and pain I know I’ll be confronted with upon my return to Denver. I’m struggling to reconcile the fact that when I leave this village and return to the safe arms of my loved ones in three weeks, I’ll be sending my TLC students back to unsafe spaces to fend off the darkness on their own for a month.

I know I’m not alone in the mess. There are real things that we’re all struggling with, and newsflash: the struggles (at least my struggles) don’t ever seem to care whether it’s Christmas time or the middle of July.

Within these weird struggles of life I’m left with a lot of questions. Questions like:

If the pain of losing Johnny isn’t going to go away, even a year later, how do I decorate gang warfare for Christmas? How do I hide the pain that it has brought to my Street School family, or the unrelated pain that I’m feeling in my heart because of family struggles and relational breakdown? Should I even try to hide it at all?

Should I try to smother my heartbreak by wrapping it in Christmas lights and pretending that it doesn’t exist? That seems to be close to how the world tells me I should handle this internal battle, yet that “solution” doesn’t sit right in my soul…

But I think this is what we, as Christians, feel like we have to do.

Within the church we feel this need to be perfect, especially around the holidays. But I, for one, can’t be perfect; I’m completely incapable of it. And I’m sick of feeling like there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be real.

Yet even within my craving for authenticity, I still hesitate to bring up the places I’m struggling. After all, I don’t want to be the one to ruin someone else’s perceived holiday perfection with my mess. None of us want to be the broken, hurting ones in the midst of a season that seems to be the antithesis of such behavior.

There isn’t space for real life or real pain in the way our culture does Christmas. I think that’s such a shame because I’m pretty sure God doesn’t have His calendar divided into “times that are appropriate to discuss hard things” and “times that are to be devoted only to the drinking of hot chocolate, wearing trendy/ugly sweaters, and listening to Michael Buble’s Christmas album in the car”.

No. In His calendar, there is a time of longing for, and a time of receiving Jesus through His birth.

And friends, this season—advent—is that season of longing.

We all have really deep longings that match our questions and pain, and advent should be a season, just like any other, where we can express those within the safety of the church without someone trying to sweep us under the rug and shove a shiny Christmas tree on top of us and our problems.

Advent is a season devoted to waiting and wrestling, longing and hoping. It was not created to be a season devoted to aesthetic perfection.

This world isn’t perfect; I don’t think you need a church calendar to tell you that. But I think that it’s okay to let advent be a season of recognizing just how broken this world is. It’s okay to talk about the imperfections in our lives, because through acknowledging them, we can more deeply acknowledge our need for Christ and His coming–for the renewal that only He could bring to our brokenness, both through His birth in that manger two thousand years ago and in His someday second coming.

This advent and Christmas season, I pray that the church will be a people who make space for the brokenness (and broken people) in our lives, knowing that Christ has done the same for humanity. May we be a people who speak truth and light into the dark, complicated places of our lives, together. And as we wrestle with our brokenness and as creation groans, may we see Hope within poor circumstance, rather than try to forget that brokenness exists.

May we look to the soon-coming Christ, the reason for our confidence and Hope for redemption, deeply knowing that because of what He has done for us in His birth, death, and resurrection, that our sufferings will be lifted one day, for He is making all things new.

May we be a people that sees the Light in the darkness, acknowledging both, but embracing the truth that Jesus came to be the light that could never be extinguished.
As I light the advent candles in my home, know that I will always light them for you too, Johnny, just like we did in La Alma Park last December at your candlelight vigil. You are not forgotten. You never could be; you simply shined too brightly with that goofy smile of yours. Thank you for teaching so many of us what Light can look like in abject darkness.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light; those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, on them has Light shone.”

(Isaiah 9:2)