Tattoo baptisms

The reality of my line of work is that when students come up to me and say, “Miss, I have something to tell you,” I’ve learned brace myself; typically that phrase is followed by some sort of confession or a pregnancy announcement. But when Lisa walked into my classroom and said those words to me last year, she didn’t seem upset or panicked (as is usual with the teenage pregnancy announcement shtick) so I took a deep breath and tried to shake some of the tension out of my shoulders that had instantly accumulated there.

“What’s up?” I asked as I shuffled papers around on my desk, failing miserably at being non-chalant.

“Uhm, maybe I’ll tell you later. You look busy.”

I didn’t protest and instead tried to take a deep breath and blow it off. Inevitably “DSS happened” and I got swept away with my day teaching, completely forgetting about Lisa and the emotional cliff she had left me hanging on.

After lunch, she sauntered into my classroom for senior English. Before I could say anything, she turned her back to me and swept her hair to the side. As she did so, she revealed a tattoo reaching down her upper spine that read God is love and only love.

“Whaaaaaat?! Lis, I love it!” I stammered, allowing my pulse to slow (incredibly relieved that the thing she was dying to tell me about that morning was just a tattoo).

“You like it?” She launched into a story about how she had been on the verge of making a stupid decision after getting into a fight with her mom over the weekend. “Instead of smoking weed or something though, I decided to go for a “solo” like we learned to do at the conference in Alaska. I grabbed my coat and walked for a few hours while I thought about everything I’ve learned about God at DSS and on our trip— you know, how He’s always there for us… how He loves us… all of that. As I kept walking, I kept thinking about Eric’s words in Port Alsworth: “God is love and only love”. Before I knew it, I was standing outside a tattoo parlor. I decided I never wanted to forget those words, so I got them inked on my back; I want to live my life knowing that God loves me.”

By this point, the bell to begin class had rung and I had an audience of senior girls staring at me like I had lost my mind as I stood next to Lisa with my hands cupped over my mouth and tears running down my cheeks.

“Oh Lis. That’s beautiful. And such a big commitment for someone who wasn’t all that sure about God (let alone, Jesus) at the beginning of this school year.”

“I know, Miss. But I wanted to write it on my heart— I want knowing God’s character to change everything I do.”

By this point, I was in full on water-works mode. “Do you guys know what a baptism is?” I choked out, turning to the rest of my class. (I figured we were studying Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters, so this conversation was mildly pertinent to the rest of my girls for academic reasons.)

“Isn’t it when someone gets dunked in water?” One of my girls pipped up.

“Usually… Does anyone know why people get baptized?” I pressed, doing my best to dry my happy/ sappy tears and put on my teacher hat.

*Crickets*

“Baptism is a public declaration of a person’s faith in Jesus. When someone gets baptized they’re saying to the world that they want to follow Jesus and live their life in a changed way because of the way He has changed them.”

I glanced around the room and met a bunch of empty, unimpressed stares before catching Lisa’s eye.

“Lis, correct me if I’m wrong… but I think that’s what you did this weekend. I think you got a Street School style baptism…?”

She smiled slyly, nodded, and took her seat.

~ ~ ~

My tears that day (as strange as they must have seemed to the rest of my students) were all joy, enhanced by the knowledge that mere months before Lis made the conscious decision to declare her love for the Lord, she doubted His existence, His goodness, His love for her (or anyone else for that matter).

Today, I sat in a similar posture as Lisa had the day before she brushed her hair to the side and revealed her new ink. With my arm extended, I chose to have someone etch Truth into me— similar to the way the body of Christ, my friends and family have done over the last year since our plane disappeared.

IMG_0750It is for freedom – Script by the lovely Katie Brown

“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

Those words from Galatians 5:1 are ones I have spoken to myself often since the evening of December 7th, 2016.

I will never forget the out of body experience that came with being curled on my knees on my kitchen floor, clutching the phone on which my best friend in Alaska had just delivered the news of the disappearance of Scott, Kaitlyn, Zach, Kyle, and our plane. I will never be able to stop seeing myself there, nor can I seem to forget the feeling of all of my breath leaving my body as my head was plunged back under the icy waters of grief, not even six months after Kevin and Geno’s deaths. I can still vaguely feel the way my lungs remained contracted for months, unable to fully inhale for fear of breathing in water— my own tears. A very wise friend assured me one afternoon that maybe that season of feeling like I was under water was meant to be a baptism, not the vengeful drowning of me, an “unworthy sinner” by my most Holy God. (Oh how I have kept that wisdom close to my heart.)

The words from Galatians 5:1 are those which I heard the Lord whisper to my spirit upon my first ever flight as pilot-in-command in April of 2016. As I manned the yoke in our Cherokee and screamed, “Oh my God! I’m flying!! I’m flying a plane! Who thought this was a good idea?!” like the spazz I am, I almost audibly felt him calm me: Shhhhhhh, sweet girl. I have set you free so that the freedom of the gospel might be spread to places only planes can go; it is for freedom Christ has set us free.

Those words are the ones which Scott teased me for mercilessly when I said I wanted to get them tattooed on my arm once I solo-ed in the Cherokee for my pilot’s license. In his typical snarky way, He would always extend an interpretation of the verse to include: “do not be yoked again to the slavery of the ground!” where scripture says, “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Pilot jokes… they’re almost as bad as dad jokes… (And oh, Scott had such a knack for both.) 

Those words have been my constant reminder that the Lord has not allowed our loved ones’ deaths and Homecomings to be in vain; rather that their transference into the Heavens has been a means by which the gospel has been spread to the very ends of the earth— the most remote Alaskan villages, the Cambodian countryside, humble living rooms all over the US as Julie’s story has been written and read, and all over the world as the body of Christ has rallied our little Alaskan village in prayer.

Those words are a reminder of my calling in life: to be unashamed of the Freedom I carry within my bones because of what Christ has done on the cross, and to call others into that glorious Freedom.

So today, a day where my own grief and the grief I carry in my heart for my dear friends seems strong enough to suck me back under the icy waters, I chose to take a leaf out of Lisa’s book and baptize myself in Truth:

Even here, even now, the Truth remains that God is love and only love. In the midst of trials and sorrow, anniversaries of deaths, and the reminders of dreams and hopes deferred, my God is a God of freedom.

Christ came that we may be set free– that we might proclaim the beautiful, even if tragic, ways that His coming into world and our lives has changed everything.

Jesus, make our hearts believe.

Broncos2016

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Growing in doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Oh Holy Night, the weary soul rejoices…”

I’ve spent the morning curled up on the Yarrow House sofa here in Denver. Six different versions of “Oh Holy Night” have looped on my Spotify as I’ve sat, staring vacantly at our Christmas tree and the Bible in my lap. No matter how long I look at either, I’m unable to reconcile myself to the joy that either thing should bring me in this season of Advent.

It was on this day two years ago that one of my Street School students was killed in gang warfare. And even though it seems like two years have passed, it was just last night that we received what I still can’t bring myself to believe is the final word that four of my loved ones in Alaska likely won’t return home after their plane went missing on a flight from our village to Anchorage Wednesday.

On December 10th, a day that has already been agonizing these last two years, I admittedly have been struggling with feeling more helpless and hopeless than ever. I long to be able to fix something. Anything. I long to be 3,500 miles away from this sofa, embracing my dear friends in Port Alsworth whose lives have been forever changed by a routine commute that turned into all of our worst nightmare.

My heart breaks more and more for those I love with every text, phone call, and update I receive because I know there is not a single one of us from that beautiful little bush village unscathed by this tragedy. Within that heartbreak I have heard the screams and cries of my friends who have lost members of their family and there simply aren’t words for, or to say in response to, that kind of suffering or pain.

Even though I am in the city where Johnny died, physically close to those affected by that tragedy two years ago, I am incapable of doing anything to change the situation here either. We will never be able to bring him back, answer the still-outstanding questions, or heal the residual pain his family, my students, and our Street School staff still feel.

As my mind has swung between these tragedies, desperately trying to make sense of something, the only conclusion I’ve reached is this: Never in my life have I felt such a deep ache for Someone to save me or the people I love from the pain and brokenness of this world. Never in my life have I longed so deeply for a Savior. 

While my heart can’t seem to consider celebrating anything right about now, I know the truth: we will soon celebrate the fact that our Savior has already come.

The Bible in my lap, my brothers and sisters (near and far) who have prayed and cried with me this week, the song that keeps repeating itself over my computer speakers, and even the silly cultural tradition of sticking a dying tree in our living room and wrapping it in lights point me back to that truth–

Our Savior has come. Christ came, incarnate as a helpless baby, and died as the Most Powerful King to save us from both our sin and our sorrow. Past, present, and future.

Two thousand years ago He became Emmanuel and Emmanuel He is still.
God with us.
God with all who mourn.
God with all who weep.
God wrapping His arms around every person who knows and loves Port Alsworth, the Longerbeams, the Bloms, and Johnny’s family.
God indwelling in those of us who call Him Abba, Father.
God who came to rescue.
God who will make all things new.

And thus I proclaim over my own trembling heart and that of those around me, that even as the news we receive today and this week will likely worsen by earthly standards, the good news that Christ has come for us and can wrap us in His arms now and for eternity is. indeed. Good. News.

Even if everything else falls apart, His sovereign plan, loving promise, Good News, and ultimate sacrifice remains the same– it is the only Good News we could ever truly need.

“Oh holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees, Oh heart the angel voices
Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine, Oh night, Oh night divine

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name!

Christ is the Lord, Oh praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim

Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices,
Oh night, Oh night, Oh night divine.”

img_1705

Oh, Jesus. Make our hearts believe. Make our hearts believe while we are here on our knees…

~~~

If you, like me, wish you could do something but don’t know what to do, you can donate to any of the Go Fund Me accounts below. The first two are to help cover memorial service/funeral costs for the Blom and Longerbeam families. The last is to help some of the Bloms’ dear friends make it to Alaska for Scott, Zach, and Kaitlyn’s celebration of life.

Blom family memorial service / out of state family travel expenses

Kyle’s memorial service / family travel expenses

Help send the Brent/ Boe families to Alaska

Obedience, even unto death

Two weekends ago I spent my Saturday carefully planting the beautiful plants that I’ve had growing in our dining room since March. My garden this year had grown to be my pride and joy.

I watered it and rotated every pot, every morning to ensure each plant was getting sun in the fickle Colorado spring. I replanted things when they got crowded. But eventually my vegetables got to a point where they simply needed to move into new soil in the great outdoors. I dutifully checked the long-term weather forecast and saw nothing but sun and rain for the foreseeable future. Seemingly the perfect time to plant.

And so, I tilled the soil and planted everything in the cute little garden plot in our yard.

For a week, everything flourished. My veggies seemed happy with the rain and sun and their new room.

garden

And then freaking Colorado weather happened and last Saturday a slushy snow storm blew through. Tuesday night, I stood by the garden fence and surveyed my mostly smushed, dead garden and dramatically thought: Seems about right.

It seems about right because there’s so much about the end of this season that simply feels like a death has occurred, or rather is occurring. Slowly.

My sweet high school girls whom I have spent months (with some, years) winning over, have spontaneously turned into waterfalls in the last week. They hug me goodbye at the end of classes and school days with tears in their eyes because we both know that I won’t be at DSS for much longer.

My heart has felt like it’s shattering into a million pieces as I’ve slowly begun to pack up my classroom, write graduation speeches for kids I’ve been with for four plus years, and sign yearbooks urging kids to follow Jesus… and this blog to keep in touch. (Hashtag: Shameless plugs. Oh well.)

But work isn’t the only place where I feel death occurring.

No. I feel death sneaking into the depths of my heart when I look at my best friends, my roommates, and my wonderful church. When I hear about the weddings that I’ll be missing while in Alaska or see the bumps that I know will bear babies when I’m 2,500 miles away.

These are the moments when I feel death in the midst of such happiness and newness.

It sounds obnoxiously dramatic, I know. But it is death because with each of these wonderful life giving sights or event invitations, I have to die to myself.

I have to die to my career and identity as a teacher at the Denver Street School, and with that death comes the laying to rest of the giggles and fighting with the girls who both feed my soul and suck the life out of me…somehow all at the same time.

I have to die to the false notion that I’m somehow protecting my girls by being a physical presence in their lives. I have to die to my control issues and mom-brain, and the fact that even when they are cussing me out or throwing things at me, that I absolutely love my students from the bottom of my little breaking heart.

I have to die to my desire to be in the same state as one of my best friends after being on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean for a year.

I have to let some dreams die and be obedient to the calling that Christ has put in front of me. The calling to lay down my life as I know it, pick up my cross, and follow Him.

It’s been a wrestle, for sure. This process has (re)exposed just how much of a control freak I am underneath my easy-breezy hippie attitude.

I feel like I count the cost of following Jesus daily. In fact, I feel like there’s a small part of my brain that is constantly keeping a running tabulation of just how great the cost of moving to Alaska seems to be.

Some days the cost seems far too high. Those are the days when I dig my heels in, refusing to go to God, let alone want to follow Him anywhere. If I’m being honest, I don’t want to die to myself. I want to live the wonderful life that I claim to have made on my own. I want to stay and grow and keep my feet firmly planted in the Colorado soil.

But some days (few and far between as they may feel lately) God has my head screwed on correctly and He gives me the strength to lay everything down before Him and sing the Rend Collective song that is almost always playing in the back of my head.

“I’m saying yes to You
And no to my desires
I’ll leave myself behind
And follow You

I’ll walk the narrow road
‘Cause it leads me to You
I’ll fall but grace
Will pick me up again

I’ve counted up the cost
Oh, I’ve counted up the cost
Yes, I’ve counted up the cost
And You are worth it

I do not need safety
As much as I need You
You’re dangerous
But Lord, You’re beautiful

I’ll chase You through the pain
I’ll carry my cross
‘Cause real love
Is not afraid to bleed

I’ve counted up the cost
Oh, I’ve counted up the cost
Yes, I’ve counted up the cost
And You are worth it

Sing with me now

I’ve counted up the cost
Oh, I’ve counted up the cost
Yes, I’ve counted up the cost
And You are worth it

Take my all

Jesus, take my all
Take my everything
I’ve counted up the cost
And You’re worth everything

I’ve counted up the cost
Oh, I’ve counted up the cost
Yes, I’ve counted up the cost
And You are worth it

As the song says, “I’ll fall, but Grace will pick me up again.” I don’t need to be perfect. Thank God.

And you don’t need to be perfect either.

If there’s one thing that God is teaching me right now, it’s that following Him and choosing to die to ourselves is an everyday choice– an everyday struggle. Sometimes it hurts like hell and you cry a lot.  But His mercies are new every morning.

As followers of Christ, we are called to die to ourselves and our desires. And trust me, this death stings like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Jesus knows… (Literally.)

On the days when I’m struggling to lay down my life and my loved ones, sobbing in coffee shops, or just generally fighting Jesus tooth and nail, He brings me to a place of quiet consideration that He gets it. He died. For me. For you.

So even when I’m bitter and soggy, I’m learning to consider myself thankful that I have a Savior who provided the ultimate example of what it looks like to lay down your life for the flourishing of another.

Jesus was obedient and faithful to the plan that God laid before Him, even though it was more difficult than I can even begin to fathom. He was obedient even unto death on a cross, Philippians 2:8 tells us.

Laying down your life probably doesn’t look like moving across the country to a tiny village in Alaska. (If it does, we should definitely chat…)

No, I don’t know what laying down your life and dying to your desires looks like for you today, but Jesus does. And I urge you to reach out to Him for the strength to do so. Just as He is trying so hard to teach me to do.

Death sucks, but it’s necessary. After all, we cannot experience the beauty of resurrection and new life of Christ if we do not first experience death.

(And I know, because I know, because I know that Goodness and life and joy is just round some corner… Both here in Denver and eventually 2,500 miles away. But I also know that it’s okay to mourn and weep in the changing of seasons because we also have a Savior who wept.)

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain resurrection from the dead.”

(Philippians 3:7-11)