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”

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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–

IMG_5209

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)

 

“My People” — Redemption in Poetry on Inauguration Day

My favorite poem hangs in my bedroom just above an old, olive green foot locker and to the right of my Abuelo’s guitar. Even though I’ve been known to jokingly call Mary Oliver my “spirit animal” and I’ve had a Shakespeare anthology in my purse for the last few weeks, the poem isn’t either of theirs.

It’s an unassuming poem typed on regular white printer paper; its edges are frayed from IMG_8563.JPGbeing tucked into my journal as I’ve moved and traveled around the world over the last several years. I’ve become accustomed to carrying it with me because it speaks so deeply to both my heart and my roots.

This poem was handed in as a homework assignment four years ago by the only student I’ve ever almost had to call the cops on. When she wrote it, this student was fifteen and ohhhh, she was one of the toughest girls I’d ever met. At the time, I was a young, incredibly naive teacher and my classroom antics regularly illicited looks from her that could’ve killed. For two years, we battled each other– one strong willed Latina against another. And not long after my student handed in this poem, life became unmanageable and she had to leave high school for reasons beyond her control.

But several years later, she has reenrolled at the Street School for this semester. Today, she sat across from me at the long table in my classroom, her nose buried in a book and a familiar, sly smile on her face. She’s a different woman today than when I met her five years ago, when she wrote this poem in sophomore English, or even two years ago when she and I finally called a “truce” after finding common ground in tragedy at DSS.

Today when I looked into her eyes during English, I saw the softness and a hope that only a relationship with Christ can bring, along with a renewed passion for education and a sense of maturity brought on by a few difficult years out of school.

Having her back in my classroom after watching her fight for her future these last few years has proven to me that she is my hero. She is hardworking and determined, fire-y, yet kind, emotionally strong and incredibly hopeful. She is everything that makes me proud to be Latina– the great-granddaughter of immigrants who came to America from Mexico in a cattle car, dreaming of a better life for their children, for my father, for me.

When I looked into her eyes today, I could still see the sorrow that comes with being separated from her family back in Mexico– a sense of sorrow that has been there since we met. But above that, I can see the story of redemption the Lord is writing for her, her family, and the family she will likely one day mother. Through education and grace, Jesus is bringing hope for a future different than the fearful past she has lived.

I don’t know that there has ever been a more pertinent time for her poetic words to be shared than on this Inauguration Day. These are the words of a once terrified, angry young woman– one who hid behind an incredibly hard exterior because she saw fear as weakness, and weakness an impossibility if she and her family were going to survive in America. These are the words of a young woman finding her way through unspeakable circumstances, strife, and loss, yet still choosing to fight for possibility because she knows the God who fights for her.

So on this day, whether you’re celebrating a political victory or mourning what seems like a societal loss, I pray that the Lord grants you an eternal perspective today, as well as the grace to love our sojourning brothers and sisters well. May we love and care for our fellow sojourners, since we ourselves are exactly that.

My People

“Wake up, listen to the Mexican music,

It’s not made of tunes and rhythms.

Listen closely.

It’s the person in your yard working hard, making noise,

He who woke up early to feed his kids and didn’t have time to worry about himself.

The sweat on his forehead is honor, the dirt on his hands effort,

The money in his pocket is an everyday goal and freedom is just a word.

Fallen dreamers in the middle of a desert just to chase the uncatchable dream–

“The land of the free”.

Sunburns tell stories,

Cries tell the worries of my people.

Everyday they struggle, living in fear:

Sirens,

Bosses,

Discrimination for being a different color and race.

These people think we came to take their jobs,

The jobs that always pay my people less.

Raising their children in what they would never imagined their home place,

My people saying, “I’m Latino and not Mexican,” ’cause they’re scared to represent.

The day will come when we can get along.

It might be months, years, or even decades,

But we will rise through.

Someday, they will stop labeling my people criminals just for being dreamers…”

“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”

(Hebrews 13:1-2)

Invited in

Tea

There’s something about being invited into the home of a person you hardly know for a warm cup of tea (and toast with nutella—yum!) when it’s grey and blustery out that warms the soul in a way few other things can.

That feeling of a mug warming your frost-singed hands is one that says, “You are welcome here. You are loved.”

That is what Port Alsworth has done for me in my first few weeks in Alaska.

Families and friends have welcomed me into their homes for dinner and tea—even though it’s the end of the month and everyone’s groceries are a bit scarce. Hospitality is so important here that no one has batted an eye at welcoming me in and sharing the little they have left. (Guys, these families in this village… they trust Jesus to provide in a way that has warmed my heart while simultaneously melting my brain. Their faith is ah-mazing.)

As I’ve settled in to my new home, I’ve wrestled with feelings of homesickness in the strangest of ways. I’m not homesick for the busy-ness of Denver or for Mexican food yet (although I could really go for Fuzzy’s Tacos, now that I mention it…) No, instead I’ve been homesick for the people whose hearts I call home and the way my friends in Denver filled the Yarrow House as a family would.

My stubbornness, pride, and independence would all like me to tell you that I’m completely fine here on my own– that every day I wake up ready to do the work the Lord has called me to do. While that is mostly true, there is still a hollowness and homesickness in this empty house that will remain until my students come on Monday and fill it.

But when I contrast the emptiness of my house with the way afternoon tea and deep belly-laughter with new friends has warmed my hands and heart, I see so much about the character of our beautiful God and what He is teaching me about Himself in this quiet time.

I have been constantly reminded here that God, like the people of this delightful little village, is a God who welcomes us in.

In Luke 14 Jesus tells a story of a great banquet that illustrates this characteristic of God.

“But He said to them, ‘A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come! For everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to the servant, ‘I have just bought a field and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ Yet another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’

So the servant came and reported these things to his master. The master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you have commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel my people to come in, that my house may be filled.’” (Luke 14:16-23)

This is what God has done for me here in Port Alsworth, but more importantly, this is what God has done for us all. He has invited us into His Kingdom, even though we are poor, crippled, blind, and lame.

He knows that we are imperfect, yet He calls us to Himself as we are.

He knows that I am poor in spirit and blind to His goodness most of the time, crippled by my own crap and sin, and oh so very lame, but He loves me anyway.

He loves you and me, and not just in the endearing, “I will take pity on you and give you the scraps from my feast,” kind of way. No, He loves us so much that He invites us in, out of the cold, grey climate of our hearts and calls us to sit at His table with Him.

Have tea with me. Tell me your heart. Let me love you. Let me heal you. Let me teach you what life is supposed to be like– life with Me. 

This is the call of the Creator of the universe.

Yet, I am so guilty of making up excuses, as the invited guests of the parable did. I have to clean the house. I have to do (insert important ministry task here) to ensure that (insert name here) gets to see Jesus. I have to… I have to… I have to… We all do it. I will never trivialize the importance of the daily tasks that God has called us to, or the life altering work that we have been called to as His followers.

But what if we are missing out on the most beautiful parts of our day? Our lives? All because we get caught up in the hustle of our lives and ourselves.

My hope and prayer is that Monday I would be able to stand undistracted, next to Jesus as my students show up at the front door of our new home, and I would be able to say to their hearts, “Welcome! Come in! There’s room for you here. Sit down, let’s have some warm tea and talk. I long to know you. I long for you to know my sweet Jesus the way I do. Don’t worry, He knows just how screwed up and crazy I am, and how scared you are to be in this new place with me. Yet loves us anyway.”

And as I get to do this in the middle of the Alaskan bush with the Tanalian Leadership Center, I hope that you can hear Jesus right where you are saying, “Come in! There’s room for you here, with Me. Sit down; I long for you to know Me and know the way that I love you. Don’t worry, I already know how screwed up and crazy you may feel, and how scared you are to be here with Me. But relax. I love you anyway.”

Oh, what the world could be like if we all looked to Jesus and held out our arms to the people He has placed in front of us, saying, “Come in! There’s still more room for you here with Jesus…”

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.”

(1 John 4:10-12)