Grace in Death

2017.

The year I learned that poisonous words (when left unabated) leech into your bones, burrowing holes in your soul and slowly eroding parts of your mind.

2017.

A year of uprooting lies, of painful self-honesty and the re-examination of my self-talk.

2017.

A year of fierce hope, active joy, and the affirmation of my calling: to loudly proclaim the truth of my Savior: a story of redemption, a story that warrants continual sharing.

2017.

The year I learned about grace at a deep, personal, tangible, and abiding level – Grace that redeems and restores, Grace that loves beyond all rationality, Grace that is interwoven throughout my daily life, and Grace that responds to a name: Jesus.

Grace that exists even in death.

“O, victory in Jesus
My Savior, forever
He sought me, and He bought me
With His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him
And all my love is due Him
He plunged me, to victory
Beneath the cleansing flood.”
– Hymn, Victory in Jesus by Eugene Bartlett

(I sang this weekly throughout my childhood, but the lyrics are significantly sweeter to me in my adulthood.)

December into January is always a rough period for me. Due to the proximity of the anniversary of Nancy’s passing to Christmas, and her birthday to New Year’s, I’m typically unable to fully plunge myself into the hullabaloo that seems to define this season. Rather than anticipate Christmas and New Year’s with excitement, I approach December with much more of a stoic checklist mentality: I’m simply looking forward to surviving the checking off of each anniversary/holiday, and then rapidly moving on (with great relief) without the pressure of having to face those dates for another year.

But this year, it’s different. So much sifting has happened this year, I’m unable to merely power through December and January with a strict self-imposed numbness. I am no longer capable of doing so. That was about four Amys ago – and I’ve shed my skin too many times since then. No, ’tis the season of reflection and remembrance.

“When we dull our pain, we dull our joy.
When we numb our lows, we numb our highs.”
– Rebekah Lyons, You are Free

This holiday season, I’ve been returning again and again to the intertestamental time, the 400 years of silence – engaging with it, feeling the weight and shape of it, familiarizing myself with its layout. Pacing up and down this silent stretch of history over and over, this barren and desolate desert, its dust solidifying into a film coating my throat. Imagining how abandoned and lonely the Israelites must have felt, held in captivity under the Roman empire, without so much as a word from God for centuries.

How collectively parched they must have felt as they traversed across this desert together. An entire nation groaning under the weight of silence and captivity. How whet their appetite must have been for the birth of a Messiah, for the fulfillment of the prophesies. For release.

In this context I start to get the barest taste of the breadth of the anticipation of the Israelites. A held breath for 400 years. A pregnant pause in the story of redemption.

Suddenly, I’m catapulted forward two thousand odd years in my mind’s eye and I find myself standing in the kitchen of the old farmhouse I grew up in, once again staggering under the news that my mom is pregnant. I’m in eighth grade, encumbered by all the narrow-mindedness and narcissistic viewpoints that come with that, and I’m shocked.

To say I was merely shocked by the news is an understatement – even an injustice to the extent of my astonishment. I was reeling. My sisters (and yes, even my parents) were all floored by this turn of events. At the time, my older sister, Nancy, who was also the oldest of all of us, was nearly 15. Emily, the youngest, was 8. Everyone, including my parents, had thought that they were done having children.

Apparently, God’s plan for my parents and their family looked different. Fortunately we had nearly nine months to adjust to the news. Soon enough, the initial shock melted away into eager excitement. As a family we collectively leaned into the chaos, and after much anticipation, on June 26, 2008, the day after my eighth grade year ended, Lorilee Rose was born. Because she was so much younger than the rest of us, my parents decided to try again so she wouldn’t grow up alone, essentially as an only child, even though she had four older sisters.

Soon enough, my mom was pregnant again – this time, we would soon find out – with my first and only brother. This created an entirely new kind of anticipation in the Lapp house. We didn’t know what to do with boys – even all of our pets were female! My dad had always been the only live in male exception in our estrogen filled house.

Early on during my mom’s pregnancy with Tommy, she was prophesied over by a fellow church member:
“Kristin, God is changing your spiritual name to Hope, the way He changed Peter’s name to Rock.”
Unsure of what to make of the prophesy in the immediacy of the moment, my mom wrote it down to reflect on at a later point. In April, she was reading through Isaiah when she stumbled across the verse in chapter 43 that states: “Behold! I am doing a new thing!” My mom, now four months pregnant with her first son after having five daughters, chuckled silently to herself. Yes, God was indeed doing a new thing in the Lapp household. After over a decade of pink, blue was finally going to have a turn.

All was well in the Lapp house. We were enjoying the newest addition to our family, Lorilee, a precocious eleven month old, who had hair to match her fiery temperament, while also joyously anticipating Tommy’s arrival. The harshness of winter was finally yielding to the soft touch of spring. The school year was plodding slowly, yet steadily to a close. And my mom’s bump was growing slowly, yet steadily with it.

Until, with a silence that deafens, this perfect image was shattered one day in May at a routine check-up. When my parents went in to see the OB-GYN to ensure that the pregnancy was progressing normally, the doctor was unable to find Tommy’s heartbeat.

Our hearts were broken.

On May 21st, 2009, my maternal grandfather’s birthday, my mom was induced into labor and delivered my perfect, tiny stillborn baby brother, Thomas Lee Lapp II.

He fit into the palms of my hands.

I don’t remember much from the days following – I was manic, overcome by grief, mad with sorrow. I picked the lilac bushes next to our house clean and stuffed vase after vase full of the tiny blossoms, permeating every room in our house with their scent. To this day, they remain my favorite flower.

We buried Tommy, released balloons, cried.

My mom returned to her Bible, setting up camp in its pages, attempting to find some solace in its promises, desperate to understand why. We all were still living in the same space physically, but none of us were living in the same space mentally. We were alone, but together. Individually isolated, but a family.

And yet again I push my pen up against the border between the explainable and the unexplainable, that fine line between what can be captured by words and what can only be explained through emotion and experience. Suffice it to say that grief is almost exclusively an emotion and an experience, and any attempt to put it into words is what a drop is to an ocean.

But God was still there, in the ocean. He met me there. He met my mother there. He brought her eyes to rest upon these words of Jesus in Revelation 21:5: “I am making everything new!”

Tommy’s epitaph reads: “New in Jesus, safe in His arms.”

Grace, even in death.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
1 Peter 1:3-9, emphasis mine



“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Romans 8:18

Following Tommy’s stillbirth, God was gracious to my family once again, and on August 3, 2010, we welcomed the youngest and last member to our family: Sadie Mae Hope Lapp. She arrived just in time to kick off Nancy’s senior year of high school.

My mom, being the fervent prayer warrior that she is, sensed God telling her that she only had ten months with all her girls under one roof, and that she needed to make the most of it. Though she was a little confused by such an obvious statement, she still withdrew from everything she was involved in at the school and at church in obedience (with the exception of AWANA, a church activity our entire family was involved in) and threw herself into the full-time chaos of managing six girls ranging in age from 17 years old to newborn. Little did she know how literal that statement was. God protected her from herself, so she wouldn’t have to lament the fact she “missed” Nancy’s last year. Although nothing she was doing was inherently bad, it was important for that season that all other distractions were stripped away, so that her attention was undivided for those ten months.

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2011 was a year of bliss and celebration. Nancy graduated salutatorian of her class and spent the summer serving full-time in ministry as the Rec Leader at Beaver Camp. In the fall, she departed for Word of Life Bible Institute to study theology, and I began my senior year of high school. Sadie Mae had just turned one.

My senior year had a similarly promising beginning. I was the lead in my senior show, the President of Drama Club, and also maintaining a spot at the top of my class. I received an award for my portrayal of Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, and was then cast as the lead in my senior musical.

Until, in an explosion of noise and steel, this perfect image was shattered one day in early December, when Nancy got into a fatal car accident.

My entire world spun off its axil. I had never experienced such a strong emotion, one that manifested itself so physically. There were no lilacs to pick this time. Only a cold and barren winter to survive.

Suddenly, the desperation of the Israelites, held captive, oppressed under the Roman Empire, longing for a word from their God doesn’t seem so foreign. It doesn’t seem so distant. I can practically hear their groaning, even though two thousand years of history separate us. “Surely this wasn’t what the world was supposed to look like!” we exclaim together. “Speak to us! Rescue us!”

This time, when God responds, He doesn’t send a prophet. He doesn’t send a word.

He sends Himself.

And two thousand years later, I wrap myself in the name Emmanuel, blanketed by the warmth of a God With Us, and I weep for a God Who put skin on, a Deity born as a child in a stable so that we can rest in His stability, yesterday, today and forever.

“Unless you have looked at a world of snow as long as Edmund had been looking at it, you can hardly imagine what a relief those green patches were after the endless white.”
– C.S. Lewis,
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

The reason death hurts so much is it is the ultimate culmination of the consequences of our sin. The world is marred with brokenness, pain, and suffering because of sin. Something vital within us is broken and we are fallen as a result. And therefore, until all things are truly made new, we experience deep pain – even oceans of grief – on this side of heaven.

But we are not without hope. Because God is above and beyond the clutches of the ugliness of this world. Even what is intended for evil is used for good. Because that is the character of the God we serve. No suffering is purposeless.

Even the Grim Reaper couldn’t lay one of his skeletal fingers on my sister without God’s express permission.

I am unable to properly express how encouraged I am by this. Death doesn’t have the final word; Jesus does. Even while He hung on a cross dying, He was still in total control.

“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life–only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
John 10:17-18, emphasis mine

Nancy dying was not some fluke of fate. Nor was Tommy’s death. God did not momentarily look away, they did not slip through the cracks. Psalm 139:16 states that all the days ordained for us are written down before even one of them comes to be. God knew the length of Nancy’s life before she was even born. He called her home just shy of 19 years old for His purpose and glory.

And, again, provided abundant grace, even in and through death.

While attending Word of Life the following year, I met a woman named Sarah Pfuelb, who had taken a special liking to Nancy while she had attended there and had the opportunity to serve Nancy as a mentor. One day, overwhelmed by grief at Nancy’s absence and thoroughly exhausted from compounded lack of sleep while serving at Snow Camp she caught me crying in the dining room. In that moment, she gifted me with this story:

When Sarah had gone to return a scarf to Nancy shortly before she departed for break, Sarah found Nancy finishing up her devotions and quietly crying. Obviously concerned, Sarah asked Nancy what was wrong.
“I’m not coming back after Christmas break,” Nancy admitted tearfully to Sarah.
Confused, Sarah pressed further, trying to understand what Nancy could possibly mean by that. There was no conceivable reason for Nancy not to return to WOLBI – her grades were excellent, her health was good, and she loved it there. But Nancy had no further details to offer.
“I just know I’m not coming back,” she affirmed a second time. “But this is my prayer: That whatever is going to happen, God will use it to draw my family closer to Him. That He will use it to draw Jeriah closer to Him. And that whatever it is, He will be glorified through it.”

My sister prayed this over us for several weeks preceding her accident, without knowing at the time that she was praying that God would sustain us in and through her death. (If you want to know what walking with the Spirit looks like, look no further.)

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
– Jesus
John 12:27-28

“Should be our reaction to God’s will.”
– Note in Nancy’s Bible next to this passage, depicted above

Nancy then came home for break, clearly carrying the knowledge that she wasn’t going back to WOLBI, yet we were none the wiser for it. She joyfully laughed with us, lovingly prayed for us, boldly and willingly served us, unafraid of what was coming, secure in the knowledge that God was in control. On December 10th, 2011, the Saturday before she died, she sat down to do her quiet time based out of Daniel 8:15-27. In response to the prompt: “How can I apply this to my life?” she wrote:

“If Daniel fell prostrate at the sight of God’s angels, I can’t imagine how I will react when I meet Jesus face to face. I know my face will be turned away, ashamed of my sins and I will not be standing.”

The next morning, when Nancy was found and proclaimed dead, she was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car, with her face turned dramatically to one side.

She had met Jesus face to face.

Grace, even and especially in death.

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

When Tommy was stillborn, a young girl at the church we were then attending felt compelled to give my mom a figurine that she had saved her money specially to buy. It is a figurine depicting Jesus lovingly holding a little boy in His arms, with a girl donned in a purple robe (Nancy’s favorite color) peeking around His shoulder at the boy. She gave this to my mom in 2009, two years before Nancy joined Tommy in heaven, the same year my mom received the prophesy that her new spiritual name was Hope.

The evidence of God’s goodness and provision is so intertwined with the deaths of my brother and my sister that it’s impossible to tell the story and do it justice without including it…similar to a salvation story I know.

A salvation story that began many moons ago when God made His triumphal entry into flesh under the stars of Bethlehem, in a stable among animals. It was dirty, crude, and smelly, certainly less than ideal, but it was an invitation to the world nonetheless.

God joins us in our dung heaps, in our dirty corners, in the places so overcome with rot that we’re convinced nothing will ever grow there again. He takes that dung, that dirt, that rot, and uses it as fertilizer, drawing out beautiful growth in us through it. He does not ask that we clean ourselves up first, only that we come with a willingness to be cleansed. He does not call things as they are, but calls things as what He will cultivate through what is to come.

He affirms again and again: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. I have sufficient grace, even in the face of death.

“‘This is no thaw,’ said the dwarf, suddenly, stopping.
‘This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you!
This is Aslan’s doing.'”
– C.S. Lewis,
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

 

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Twin Pillars: A Tribute to my Parents, and an Open Letter to Young Parents Today

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
– Mother Teresa


“Like arrows in the hands of a warrior,
are the children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.”
Psalm 127:4, 5a

To the warriors that double as parents,

I’m writing this to you.


I want you to know that you are seen.
I want you to know that you are loved.
I want you to know that you are celebrated. 


In the midst of a world crowded with violence, injustice, and suffering, I am daily in awe of the immensity your courage. I am unable to fully comprehend the bravery it requires to raise your babies to find peace in the chaos, especially on the days it’s hard to even find it for yourself.

Yet, I am a product of it.

My life is a tribute to yours.


I’m writing to encourage you – to tell you now what your babies don’t yet have the words to express – what they may not even recognize.


I am currently twenty-three and am the second oldest of six girls. I have been living largely on my own for nearly three years now, in a village several hours southeast from the cozy hobby farm I grew up on in Northern New York. I’m constantly complimented by peers and adults alike on things such as my integrity, my work ethic, and my confidence. But regardless of what the compliment is, the undertone of all of them is the same: an acknowledgement – albeit a small one – of the years my parents spent directly investing and pouring into me. I am their living, breathing, opinionated legacy.

Your kids may not yet recognize what a gift you are. In fact, they probably don’t, because so much of what they know as normal is established based on what you’ve built. And thus, everyday, I reap a harvest of blessings from choices that were sown and carefully cultivated years ago by my parents – choices I had nothing to do with. Growing up, stability was my normal. Having two parents that genuinely loved each other and continued to choose each other regardless of circumstances is what I grew up knowing as status quo. Do you realize what a miracle that is? My parents are world builders and shapers.

It wasn’t until I was in at least eighth grade that I started to notice that when my school hosted an event, not everyone’s dad and mom was in the audience alongside mine. So apparently not everyone’s parents made it a priority to attend all of their events? I was legitimately confused. I was nothing short of awesome – I thought – or perhaps my parents’ enthusiastic involvement had inadvertently led me to believe – so it only made sense to me that my parents would want to come to any event I was a part of. Suddenly, their attendance to my events appeared to have nothing to do with my inherent awesomeness, and everything to do with their priorities. (Because, as we all secretly discover as we grow up, listening to two hours of forth and fifth graders bust out varied renditions of three blind mice is actually not that enjoyable. Who’d have thought?)

I don’t want you to read this letter and become discouraged, thinking that it’s impossible to reach the precedent set by my parents. Because in that case, you’re missing the point entirely. My parents were not perfect – no one is. There were instances where they acted rashly or disciplined without proper context. However, the Bible says, “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8.) Thus, all of moments in which my parents acted less than perfectly were ultimately drowned out by the roar of love.

And, in spite of all of their imperfections, I have never – ever – for a second of my entire existence, doubted whether or not I was loved. When I was small, love looked a lot like my parents going to all of my events, doing my laundry for me, or picking me up after school. Now love looks more like a phone call or a package.

So, if you receive nothing else from this letter, please receive this: if your children know that they are first and foremost loved – beyond reason and merit – it will protect them better than any academic lecture they will ever hear, and will give them a tangible picture of how God loves them in a way nothing else can.

My parents love me more than they love themselves. Their prayer for me is that I will outdo them in every capacity – not to live vicariously through me, but because they love me and want me to succeed, even if it doesn’t look conventional. My mom even once confessed to me that she regularly prays that all of her children will go farther in faith than she ever did, equipped by standing on her spiritual shoulders. Friends, that’s a good mom. I’ve already started praying the same over my future children.

“Your greatest contribution to the Kingdom of God may not be something you do, but someone you raise.”
– Andy Stanley

My parents are the first people who introduced me to Jesus – as well as the first people I saw live out their faith. This perhaps says more of them than anything I’ve written previously. I’ve heard many stories of people who are disenfranchised with church and Christianity because while their parents went to church on Sunday, it didn’t affect their day to day life, and they were wounded by their parents’ hypocrisy. Witnessing my parents’ individual and corporate faith had the opposite effect. My parents demonstrated daily that a relationship with Jesus is something to be desired, and that following Him is much more about action than head knowledge.

My parents recognized that raising a family is a ministry, and they invested in it accordingly. Most of the blessings I’ve reaped from their choices are grounded in their faith. My rolodex of childhood memories is filled with snapshots of my parents in the Word: my father at the kitchen table before he left for work, my mother at her favorite corner on the couch, a corner affectionately nicknamed her perch. Every night, I was tucked in under my comforter and a blanket of my mother’s prayer.

My parents were also not afraid of different denominations, because to them, furthering the gospel was central. This often contrasted them against the other church going parents I knew. My upbringing was very ecumenical. While I have traditionally Mennonite roots, I was involved in AWANA at a Baptist church, I attended my first youth group at a Pentecostal church, and I helped with VBS at a Presbyterian church.

It was easy to receive the sort of my faith my parents demonstrated because my parents never asked us to walk a path that was untouched by the imprint of their footprints. My parents understood what James meant when he penned the divisive words: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18.) As aforementioned, I grew up on a hobby farm, and I was one of six girls – both things which lend themselves to lots of chores. So at an early age, I was expected to make my contribution around the house, but I was never expected to work alone. My parents worked alongside me (and perhaps, sometimes, in spite of me.) This fostered a genuine respect between my parents and I that continues to this day.

Though I don’t yet have children of my own, I’ve spent enough time with children and young parents to know that parenting is not easy. In Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton describes a day in the life of a mother this way:

How was my day? It was a lifetime. It was the best of times and the worst of times. I was both lonely and never alone. I was simultaneously bored out of my skull and completely overwhelmed. I was saturated with touch — desperate to get the baby off me and the second I put her down I yearned to smell her sweet skin again. This day required more than I’m physically and emotionally capable of, while requiring nothing from my brain. I had thoughts today, ideas, real things to say and no one to hear them. 

I felt manic all day, alternating between love and fury. At least once an hour I looked at their faces and thought I might not survive the tenderness of my love for them. The next moment I was furious. I felt like a dormant volcano, steady on the outside but ready to explode and spew hot lava at any moment. And then I noticed that Amma’s face doesn’t fit into her onesie anymore, and I started to panic at the reminder that this will be over soon, that it’s fleeting — that this hardest part of my life is supposed to be the best time of my life. That this brutal time is also the most beautiful time. Am I enjoying it enough?Am I missing the best time of my life? Am I too tired to be properly in love? That fear and shame felt like adding a heavy, itchy layer on top of all of the hard.

But I’m not complaining so please don’t try to fix it. I wouldn’t have my day or my life any other way. I’m just saying – it’s a hell of a hard thing to explain – an entire day with lots of babies. It’s far too much and not even close to enough. 

Parenting – raising tiny humans – is hard. But I beg you – I entreat you – to keep doing the hard thing. Don’t get so bogged down with the mire of dirty laundry and stickiness and  mayhem that defines your daily experience that you lose sight of the worthiness of your task.


I am the product of two people who didn’t.


Even as I conclude this letter, everything I’ve said about my parents still seems like a trite introduction. I’ve barely scratched the surface. The English language has failed me in paying proper attribution to the twin pillars I call mom and dad. It is both far too much and not even close enough.

Please know that you’re not alone in this hard thing, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. All of us are just muddling through as best as we can. There are no perfect lives, just as there are no perfect people. There is only the imperfection that is still worth embracing. Find your tribe and do life with them. My parents did, and modeled that for me. Community is a vital thing. I cannot overstate this enough. It is the life blood of any successful undertaking – or in this case, upbringing.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”
– Frederick Douglass

And so I encourage you to keep fighting the good fight. Because while you might not feel like you’re changing the world, you may be raising the children that will. All revolutionaries started as children.

As my parents always said, it starts at home. 

Much love and prayer,

Amy J

 

 

Undone to Become

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I was entirely aghast and heartbroken.

I couldn’t believe I was in this place again.

“Hi,” I sobbed breathlessly into my phone. “I really can’t be alone right now. Can you come over?”
“I’ll be right there.”
Joan clicked off and I buried my tearful face back into my pillows, returning to an all too familiar state of despondency.

How do I properly encapsulate a six month period that had lasted a thousand years? I was parched, a desert aching for rain. I was a garden, overpowered by ruthless weeds. I was a trumpet longing to make music, held in the hands of someone who no longer knew how to play.

I was bone-weary. Every night the moon sympathetically looked on as I crawled into bed and cried until the ocean of grief inside me would no longer yield salty tears. Then I would pray until exhaustion forced my eyes closed for a few fitful – yet blissful – hours of escaping reality. It had been a season of hard choices, relationships ending, and misunderstandings. I was so sad, so lonely, so tired.

Please understand that I am intimately familiar with grief. I know its knock on my door, I recognize its feet on the landing. But it is an entirely different thing to grieve the loss of someone who is still alive than it is to grieve the loss of someone who has died. This was uncharted territory for me. When I did manage to have a coherent thought, it was something along the lines of it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. And then I would spend hours tormenting myself upturning every stone in the graveyard of our shared memories, wondering what I could have done differently, if there was something –anything – I could have done to have salvaged the relationship. But regardless of the number of hours spent digging my fingers raw and bloody, the results were always the same – there was nothing to be done, except let the dead bury their own dead.

Joan arrived and held me as I wept over – yet another – friendship ending. And then, knowing that words were trite and insufficient, she very practically bought me a gallon of my favorite flavor of ice cream and turned on Parks & Rec.

“I don’t understand why things like this keep happening to me,” I lamented to her. “I’m not strong enough for this.”

Isn’t it funny that sometimes, though the truth is right there before our eyes, we are blind to it?

Joan, being the incredible friend that she is, didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to speak Christianese platitudes to me. She knows me well enough to know how unapologetically stubborn I can be when told things I’m not ready to hear. She knew it was imperative that I walk through this and all of the emotions that accompany it in order to arrive in one piece on the other side. And so, in a wise effort to spare herself from awakening the beast, she simply said, “I don’t know why these things keep happening to you either, Amy. Do you want to watch another episode of Parks & Rec?”

And then she grabbed my hand in a reassuring squeeze, communicating in the way that words cannot that she’d be there for me throughout the duration of my journey and beyond. Sweet, intelligent Joan.

You see, the fact that I wasn’t strong enough was exactly the point. What I was seeing as devastation was actually an invitation.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down. It’s the way you carry it.”
– C. S. Lewis

I was being invited into a deeper and sweeter relationship with God, an intimacy with Him unlike any I had ever known. But that required me to face the deepest and ugliest parts of myself. I had to be honest with myself so that I could be honest with God. It required me to release the dreams I was holding with white-knuckled determination. Perhaps one of Satan’s most pervasive lies is this idea of “Christ and.” If I only had Christ and __________, I would be happy. There is no “and.” There is only Christ. God was teaching me to hate my own mother and father and sisters, even my own life, in light of His glory and grace (Luke 14:26). He was teaching me to work out my salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). God was allowing me to be shaken to the stones of my foundation so that the faulty structures I had built would crumble, and I would be left with the only thing worth having: Christ.

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.” 

My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, hymn

Unbeknownst to me, since Nancy had passed away, all of my relationships have been colored through that lens of grief and loss. Sometime after she passed, (perhaps even immediately after she passed,) I went from holding my relationships loosely to holding them fiercely in a vice grip, only loosening my unwilling fingers once my hand was forced. Relationships are beautiful things, and I truly believe that they are one of the only things worth doing. However, they must be kept in their proper place. The root issue wasn’t relationships. The root issue was one of control. I was desperately clawing for control because I was terrified of losing another person. In fact, I was so scared of losing someone again that I allowed myself to be repeatedly mistreated if it meant keeping relationships intact.

Idolatry always has consequences.

Fear is the antithesis of faith. After all, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). You cannot take steps forward in faith if you’re allowing fear to have the final word. The steps are not available to you. Ironically, in my quest for control, I lost control. My quest to be in control landed me in bedridden grief for months. I had to withdraw from my classes in order to wrestle.

Fortunately, though we are saved by faith alone, we do not have to operate by faith that is alone (paraphrase of Martin Luther.) My friends rallied around me. This season of darkness was lit with the unprovoked provision of meals, bouquets, letters, and other gestures reminding me I was loved and cared for, not the least of which involved a gallon of ice cream. Meanwhile, God chiseled away.

Worship: Basking in Victory

IMG_3140

During the end of this season I went home, and wished for the hundredth thousandth time that I could have a conversation with Nancy about all this. And as I was sitting there, watching the sun sink below the trees behind her gravestone, my thirsty heart received its first drop of rain in months.

“The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing.”
Zephaniah 3:17,
the verse referenced on Nancy’s gravestone,
the verse she referenced in her final letter to my mom 

I was sitting where my sister was buried, and yet I knew that her funeral only served as an earmark of her crossing into eternal celebration and communion with her savior. I was sitting in the place of Victory, not wallowing in the place of Defeat. Nancy’s grave is place to worship, a Monument of Redemption and Resurrection. The same God she looked upon daily was with me in this very moment, and had been through all the recent months of grief and loss.

This was a God I wanted to serve. Unabashedly, unashamedly, and undistractedly.

In that moment, a ravenous appetite for Jesus was awakened within me unlike anything I’d previously known. God had been steadily chiseling away the relationships I had used to fill the space only He was meant to occupy. No wonder I had been so dissatisfied and lonely. And though His chisel had hurt unlike anything I’ve ever known, it brought me face to face with a God unlike anything I’ve ever known.

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change, at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come out from this ground, at all?
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
All around,
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found, in You
Beautiful Things, Gungor

Death looks beautiful on the face of Jesus.

I had been parched so that I would learn to long for Living Water. I had been undone to become like His Son.

Suddenly, after months of observing a seemingly barren garden, green sprouts came gasping through the soil, in search of water. My cup was running over.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Ezekiel 36:26


“For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”
Colossians 3:3

 

Playing the Flame Game

It has now been two weeks since the violence at Charlottesville.

I have spent that time trying to compose my thoughts; trying to put words to the chaotic torrent of emotions pumping through my veins in time with my heartbeat.

I am numbed by the hatred, anger, and racism so prevalent in our nation. My grief is so heavy, it feels as though I’ve swallowed a boulder. Leaden. Dense.

“If you’re not feeling the weight of these times in your belly, that’s more likely indifference/detachment than the peace of Christ.”
– Jonathan Martin

My current emotional state is reminiscent of the day I found out Nancy died.


The troopers came into our house, pinching her license between their fingers. “Is this your daughter?” they asked my parents. When my parents nodded yes, they continued speaking from a place miles away. I strained to listen, but it was only through a great effort that I heard what they said next, as it felt as though I’d been suddenly thrust under deep water.

“She got into a car accident today and she didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.”

My bones turned to rubber and folded underneath me. I collapsed into the current of the water and it began pulling at me, slowly at first than faster and faster. As it spiraled madly around me, I flailed, trying to break the surface, trying to inhale the lungful of air I so desperately needed. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. The boulder that had taken residence somewhere in my gut weighed me down further, pulling me deeper by the minute. I eventually managed to grab a conveniently placed doorframe and pull myself to the surface of the torrent, only to discover that I was still unable to breathe because the boulder knocked the wind out of me. Wild-eyed and gasping, I wept. Emotions beyond the realm of words poured out from a place deep inside me that had been irreparably broken.


There are five stages of grief.

The first is denial. This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening, we tell ourselves. Some of my white brothers and sisters are still stuck in this stage of grief. This is a defense mechanism, our mind’s way of rationalizing otherwise overwhelming emotions. It helps offset the immediate shock of the loss. It acts as an anesthetic through the first wave of pain. It grants us to survival to the second stage.

The second stage is anger. As the denial begins to wane, the pain reemerges, as intense and raw as we left it. We are still unprepared. However, since we can no longer deny the reality of the situation, we deflect it away from us in outbursts of anger.

I am currently camped in the angry stage of grief. I don’t think that I’ve ever sat down and written a blog post while I was this angry before. I try to spare those who read my posts the full intensity of the fire that runs hot and wild through my veins.

But unfortunately, not being angry is a luxury I can no longer afford. This anger is important.

Attitudes that I thought we as a nation had condemned, and belief systems that I thought we had dismantled have resurfaced with a horrifically ravenous fanaticism. Conversations that I never thought would be necessary on this side of history have become the norm. Groups of people have been repeatedly devalued or ignored by other groups of people scrambling to ensure that they remain in power. It’s sickening.

I need to sit with this anger against white supremacy, tight and hard in my chest. I need to feed this fire against injustice, hot and fierce and dangerous. I need to guard this flame against racism, carefully cultivating it into something productive, allowing it to give me direction and mold me as it runs its course. This fire is valuable. It is a fire that has burned its name on my bones and seared its name on my flesh. It is an anger that will not easily be doused from my memories – nor is it one that should be.

Yes, friends, I am angry. I am angry, because I am grieving.

“If we hand our sons and daughters a faith exposed as racist, misogynistic, unconcerned about creation and the poor, they aren’t wrong to leave it.”
– Jonathan Martin

My heart is broken for my brothers and sisters of color, for the marginalized and the oppressed. My heart is broken by both the silence of some of my white brothers and sisters, and the excuses that some of the others are offering on behalf of groups that are not worth defending. My heart is broken by the flippancy with which the President is treating these issues in an increasingly divided nation. My heart is broken by the labels which we’re using as weapons to further divide us and choke empathy. Simply put, my heart is broken.

“The purpose of life is not just to be happy.
The purpose of life, my love, is to feel.
You must understand that your pain,
is essential.”
– Christopher Poindexter

Matthew 5:4 says that those who mourn are blessed, because they will be comforted. In the Greek, the word for mourn here is pentheó, which can also be translated lament or manifested grief – i.e. a grief so severe that it cannot be hidden; a grief that takes possession of a person. It can also be translated to grieve over death – and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Thus, this Beatitude could just as easily read: blessed are those who lament their sin, for they will be comforted. I used to think the implications of this verse were merely personal, but I’ve since realized that to lament your own sin is to lament all sin, because as you acknowledge your sin, you realize that the same root bears the same fruit. This is why in Isaiah 53, Jesus was prophesied to be “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.” He knew the ramifications for sin more intimately than anybody. He perfectly knew perfection; thus He grieved over imperfection.

It is imperative we face our own darkness before we can fight against the evil so prevalent in our world – lest we become like those we are fighting against. History attests to this. America was involved in World War II against Germany and the Nazis, while simultaneously placing Japanese Americans in internment camps. Without the humility to look in the mirror, we become hypocrites. None of us are beyond the reach of our own fallen nature, in spite of the best of intentions. “The authority of compassion,” Henri J. Nouwen writes, “is the possibility for each of us to forgive our brothers and sisters, because forgiveness is only real for those who have discovered the weakness of their friends and the sins of their enemies in their own hearts, and are willing to call each human being their sister or brother.”

“Grant, Lord, that I may know myself,
that I may know Thee.”
– Augustine

Humility is a cornerstone of Christianity. To know God is to be humbled by Him. As you are humbled by Him, you are able to better love others, because the gospel is the great equalizer. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. There is no Jew or Greek, there is just people. Jesus said Himself that the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. These are not two unrelated commandments, but rather the second commandment hinges on the first. If you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, the natural outpouring of that is to love your neighbor. 1 John 4:20 states that “whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” We are all created in God’s image, thus no person or group of people is better than another. This scarcity mindset – that “there will not be enough for me if they benefit too” – is eradicated by the gospel. There is enough equality for all.


I don’t truly remember the days following Nancy’s death. I was in a fog; everything is blurred at the edges. But this I do know – in that time of deep grief, I was not alone. I was not left to drown in an endless pool of blackness. People held me, cried with me, and laughed with me. People reminded me to eat. People squeezed my hand and rubbed my knee, assuring me that they were going to journey through this with me; that they were there if I needed anything. In particularly, my childhood best friend Aurora did not leave my side for days. She slept with me every night, ensuring that if I woke up I wasn’t alone with my thoughts and darkness. Aurora sat with me, listened to me, loved me. No one told me that my grief was out of place or that I was overreacting.

During this season of immense political and racial turmoil, we would all do well to take a lesson from Aurora. We should be the faces of compassion to our black brothers and sisters – listening more than we speak and validating, not undermining, their grief. We don’t have to understand everything perfectly to love well. Aurora gave flesh and bones to love during my season of deepest grief; let us do the same.

My prayer is that our anger will be repeatedly kindled against the immense injustice experienced by our neighbors, so that we will cease playing the blame game, and begin playing the flame game.

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Ephesians 6:12

Burls and Guys

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
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 we do not lose heart. Though our outward self is wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
2 Corinthians 4:8-11,16-18; 5:7

I once sat in on a sermon where the pastor speaking posed this question: what is the best meal a person could ever eat? People in the audience chuckled, and a few brave souls raised their hands and ventured a guess. “My mom’s home cooked lasagna,” claimed one. “Olive Garden bread sticks!” another chimed in. “Definitely a well made steak,” shouted a third.

“No,” the pastor continued. “The best meal a person could ever eat is the meal that follows a marathon. It doesn’t matter what the meal consists of – it could be bread and water – what matters is the hunger that was created by the activity that proceeded it. If you’ve run a marathon first, that will be the best tasting bread you’ve ever eaten and the most deliciously refreshing water that you’ve ever drank – I promise.”

Recently, I tested the pastor on this point. I am serving as a wilderness trip leader at a camp in the Adirondacks for the summer, and so naturally, I went on a couple of training trips with my co-leaders during preseason. One of the trips was a canoe training trip. As Murphy’s Law would have it, our canoe training trip coincided with the worst torrential downpour of the millennium. I’m talking rain coming down so heavily that you could go from comfortably dry to drenched to the skin in 0.002 seconds. The you can’t quite keep your eyes open kind of rain. It was a cold rain. It was a furious rain –  the alright now, who angered God? kind of rain.

It was utterly m i s e r a b l e.

I have nothing against rain. There are few things I enjoy more than curling up with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa, listening to rhythmic patter of rain against a window. I grew up in an old farmhouse with a tin roof, and I spent many nights being sung to sleep by the soothing sound of rain against the roof. But there’s an important operative difference between those scenarios and this one – in both of those ones, I’m happily dry and comfortable; in this one, I’m shivering and exposed.

And as if the rain wasn’t bad enough on its own, it was soon accompanied by a thunderstorm. Again, nothing against thunderstorms. I just prefer enjoying their beauty from the safety and warmth of my house.

Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time outdoors knows that rain, while an inconvenience, is at least tolerable and manageable for the sole fact that you can keep moving as needed. With a thunderstorm, however, arises several complications. First of all, you can’t be on water for obvious reasons. Which, as a canoeing group of five people desperate to get to the spot where we could make camp for the night, this was more than a minor inconvenience. Secondly, you want to avoid open areas (and thus avoid being the tallest point around.) We had to portage the canoes along a well worn path if we wanted to keep moving forward. But the canoes are made of aluminum, which is another thing you don’t want to be in close proximity to during a thunderstorm.

Inevitably, we were forced to come to a complete halt. We sought respite along the side of the path that we had been portaging on, under the trees. We then assumed “lightening position” (a sort of crouch where you make yourself as small as humanly possible, tucking your head down, and keeping your feet together so you don’t have more than one contact point with the ground) – a position that frankly, I thought we had only learned ironically – on top of our lifejackets and waited it out.

I’m sorry, did I say earlier that merely canoeing in the rain was utterly miserable? No no. This was utterly m i s e r a b l e.

After the half hour that lasted a lifetime and aged me twenty years, we were finally able to plod on. The rain hadn’t stopped, but the thunderstorm had. Soggy, we slogged on, arriving at our campsite like wet dogs with our tails between our legs. We fanned out – some setting up tents and tarps, some working on dinner. Through it all, the rain droned steadily on.

But let me tell you this, chicken rice stew has never tasted so good. (From the way my male co-leaders raved about it, you would have thought I’d missed my calling as a chef.)

I didn’t run a marathon, but that night, lying in my tent, still slightly damp from the day’s events, the pastor’s words echoed in my memory: The best meal a person could ever eat is the meal that follows a marathon. It doesn’t matter what the meal consists of – it could be bread and water – what matters is the hunger that was created by the activity that proceeded it.

Immense hunger leads to immense gratification.

“If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of this world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.”
– John Piper

Detours

I don’t know about you, but it’s much easier to fantasize myself as a “good” Christian when I’m not behind the wheel of a car. When I’m driving, suddenly it’s as if this totally different person emerges. I promise, every time I drive, every other driver on the road that day is conscientiously driving in such a way as to intentionally annoy me and make my driving experience as miserable as possible. It’s this weird thing. Don’t people know that the left lane on the highway is intended for people who want to go fast, not take a leisurely Sunday drive? Also, I wasn’t aware that turning signals are so difficult to turn on. Nor was going the speed limit.

But few things are worse than hitting construction while on the road. As a person who already struggles with punctuality, hitting construction while driving is the stuff of nightmares for me. When I come to a complete standstill on the road, sitting in a vehicle intended for motion, it rapidly becomes undeniably clear that the Lord is not finished with me yet.

And so it follows that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of detours either. I don’t want to add twenty or more minutes to my drive. I want to go straight and arrive at my destination at the time I was expecting.

But that’s not how detours work.

Perhaps the reason I hate detours so much is they’re all too familiar to me. My entire young twenties thus far have felt like one detour after another. I have ruthlessly and painstakingly planned, and yet, no sooner do I place the finishing touches on a plan than God deems it necessary to place it under construction and send me on a detour instead. I have been in and out of school, jobs, churches, and ministries. I’ve planted only to be uprooted and sown without reaping. If you want to know the truth, it’s immensely discouraging.

The rain keeps coming down; I keep plodding on. I’ve even been forced to halt entirely at times and wait out a storm.

Ironically, I’ve only realized I had an expectation that my life would look differently than it does in this cosmic undoing of it. I don’t know what exactly I thought my life would look like, but I definitely thought that by this point if I wasn’t already married, I would at the very least be in a serious relationship to that effect. I thought I would be done with my Bachelor’s degree and in a job I loved. I thought I would be settled somewhere.

I thought a lot of things.

At the very least, I thought my life’s trajectory would be straightforward and somewhat “normal” looking, as opposed to how it has actually looked.

But, this past semester, finally fed up with watching my plans crumble and tired of trying to make things look differently than they do, I cried out angrily to God from my own personal Valley of the Shadow of Death – a valley marked with loneliness, broken relationships, directionless ambiguity, and monotony.

“Why?!” I demanded angrily. “Why me? Why whywhywhy WHY?!”

The Lord answered me out of the whirlwind and said:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—
surely you know!
Or Who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or Who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
(Job 38:4-7)

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”
(1 Kings 19:11b-12)

“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
(Psalm 46:10)

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways My 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)

The issue was not that I was asking why – or even that I was angry. God is big enough to handle both of those things. The issue was that I was demanding an answer for my situation as a condition for contentment. I was willing to struggle, but only with the stipulation that I knew why I was struggling. God wanted me to cease striving, and know that He is God. It was almost as if I heard Him sigh and say

Oh my sweet girl.
My beloved creation.
Don’t you know Me yet?
Trust Me.
Though in your heart you may plan your way,
It is I Who establish your steps.
It is I Who is your confidence.
I AM WHO I AM.
I Am working all things together for your good.
(Proverbs 16:9, 3:26, Exodus 3:14, Romans 8:28)

Making plans is not wrong. Nor is desiring to be a wife and mother, or aspiring to finish college, or working towards having a successful career. None of these things are wrong, or even ignoble aims. The problem is when we start holding things with clenched fists instead of open hands. Because if God is not God of the detours, He’s not God of the successes.

“What harm can happen to to him that knows that God does everything, and who loves beforehand everything that God does?”
– Madame Swetchine

Burls

I love being in the Adirondacks in the summertime. There’s so much greenery and it smells like nostalgia and the happiest parts of my childhood. The sunrises are only surpassed by the sunsets, and the sunsets are only surpassed by the vivid clarity of Adirondack stars. But perhaps one of my favorite details of all is the overabundance of burls among the trees in the Adirondacks. A burl is an abnormal spherical growth on a tree that looks like a giant bark-covered wart. It can be near the roots of the tree, nearly anywhere on the trunk of a tree, or even encircle the trunk of the tree entirely. I used to find them hideous obstructions, an aesthetic disgrace, and now I find the opposite to be true.

Though scientists have yet to ascertain precisely what causes a burl to form on a tree, the common assumption is that a burl is formed as a reaction by the tree to some kind of trauma – damage to the exterior of a tree, an insect infestation, a virus, or a fungi, to name a few. Although the burl may look unhealthy, it doesn’t typically affect the overall health of the tree. Moreover, because a burl grows with the tree that it’s attached to, removing a burl while the tree is still alive can cause more harm than good. Unlike the wood grain in a tree, which runs in one direction, the wood grain of a burl is chaotic and complex, and thus highly prized by artisans, making it the most valuable thing a tree can create.

I think that few things encapsulate the beauty of what God does in us through trials – through detours, rained out canoe trips, and loss – better than burls. The tree does not stop growing because it has been afflicted. It does not cease reaching towards heaven. Instead, it stands boldly, rooted, proud. Daily wearing the scar of the battle that it has undergone and survived, an ongoing invitation to others to be vulnerable and honest with where they’ve been, what God has brought them from, and the beauty and value God has created from it. It is an opportunity to rejoice at God’s salvation, preservation, and redemption.

“For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
Isaiah 55:12

I have spent these past six months feeling immensely vulnerable and exposed, shivering in the unrelenting rain of my trials, forced on a detour that I didn’t choose. But God is in the business of making all things beautiful (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and I’m excited to see the burl He will create out of this season – a burl that boasts of His glory and grace. Also, through this season, God has awakened in me a hunger for Him unlike any I’ve ever known. My appetite has been whet through my circumstances, and I have truly never met a better meal than the Bread of His body and the Wine of His blood. I don’t expect I ever will. Man does not live on bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4), and nothing tastes sweeter than Jesus.

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
John 6:35

“Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”
Psalm 34:8

“Why does God allow us to spend so much of life in the heat of the battle?
Because He never meant for us to sip His spirit like a proper cup of tea. He meant for us to hold our sweating heads over the fountain and lap up His life with
unquenchable thirst.”
– Beth Moore

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Romans 8:18

 

The Miracle Worker: How Theatre Saved my Life

For as long as I can remember, I have always been entranced by the power of a good story. As a child, I was an avid reader, devouring books of all genres, topics, and sizes, barely digesting one before I was halfway through another. My appetite for stories – for a better understanding of the human condition – could not be satiated. I watched the world around me with curious and eager brown eyes, constantly on a quest to better understand others – and, whether I realized it or not, through that, to better understand myself. I wanted to know the why behind the what. I craved context. I wanted to know the motives that drove actions. Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?

When I was young, going to the theatre as a family was always big production. Together, we annually attended the musical put on by my local high school. And, even though we were just attending a show at the high school theatre, my mom always made us wear dresses – with tights. It was much ado about nothing, if you asked petulant seven-year-old me. We always lamented about being subjected to dress up to attend the shows – “but mo-o-o-om, no one else has to!”

However, whatever anguish we suffered at being subjected to dressing up was quickly forgotten as we settled into our seats, the curtain went up, and we got swept away with the story.

The lights. The music. The intensity and frailty of live performance. The palpable adrenaline and rawness of it all. It’s truly inexplicable. My breath often caught in my throat more than once, and it had nothing to do with the constricting waistline of my tights.

I don’t even remember the specifics of most of the shows that I saw. I do, however, vividly remember the first time I realized that the stage was accessible to me. We were leaving the high school theatre, the Indian River Theatre of Performing Arts, (or IRTOPA, as it is affectionately nicknamed through its acronym) after watching a family friend perform as the fairy godmother in Cinderella. Seeing someone I knew onstage changed my perception of theatre entirely. Suddenly, the people who played the characters I saw depicted in shows ceased being these larger than life caricatures as I had fabricated – untouchable and unattainable beings. Instead, I understood and recognized them for what they were: people. Mere people: daughters, sisters, students, sons, friends. Yes, the cast of a musical was a conglomeration of immensely talented people, united toward a common goal. But they were still simply a group of people, nonetheless. I left the theatre determined that I would join their ranks and be among them (that is, as soon as I was old enough.) There was a million things I hadn’t done, but just you wait. The world was gonna know my name. I intended to break both legs on that stage.

Little did I know then that theatre would save my life.

I landed my first speaking role as a sophomore. I depicted the Mayor of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. (Believe me, the irony of that being my first speaking role didn’t go over my head either.) The following fall, I played the endearingly spoiled Amy March in Little Women. I then played the despondent eleven-year-old Alena Lederova in A Child Shall Lead that winter, a play based on Terezin, a concentration camp that the Germans put the more prominent Jews and children in during the Holocaust. It was a “show” concentration camp of sorts, as disgusting and horrifying as that prospect is. I transitioned from hating dressing up for shows to willingly dressing up in order to put on a show.

DSC_2693

I loved it all; the entire process. The auditioning. The rehearsals. Blocking. Memorizing. Props. Sets. Doing character work. The excitement of opening night and the sorrow of closing night. The comradery and the community. IRTOPA became my home away from home and my fellow cast members became my second family.  Through the roles I had the honor of depicting, I was beginning to gain a deeper understanding of myself.

My senior year, I landed my first lead role as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. There aren’t words to describe the elation that I felt upon seeing the cast list for the first time. I was entirely overwhelmed and ecstatic. I had been dreaming of this day for years. I couldn’t believe it had finally arrived.

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“Teacher: t-e-a-c-h-e-r.”

303818_10150337011947520_727856142_n

DSC_1494A short few months later, The Miracle Worker closed and the time to audition for my senior musical was rapidly approaching. I spent hours honing and perfecting my audition piece. I was determined to realize the dreams of 2006 Amy and make her proud. I would dare to dream the impossible dream.

On December 9th, 2011, I walked into audition for Annie. It was a Friday night, so I wouldn’t have access to seeing the cast list until Monday.

Fortunately, much to my relief, later that night, I received a call from the director:

“You did it. You’re Annie.”

In that moment, if you had asked me to fly, I could have.

I’d done it. I was Annie. 2006 Amy could rest easy, knowing all her dreams had been fulfilled. I sprinted up the stairs to tell Nancy and my mom. Breathlessly, I panted, “I’m Annie. I’m ANNIE!!”

Nancy wasted no time engulfing me in a hug. “I never doubted for a second that you’d get it. I’m so unbelievably proud of you. You’re going to do so well!”

My mom smiled broadly and squeezed my shoulder. She knew how much this meant to me.

That night, I went ice skating with Nancy, Jeriah, and my sisters, alongside a small cluster of our friends. In truth though, I was floating around the rink. I was Annie. Annie.

My cheeks burned from smiling so much.


It only makes sense that I would have to come back to earth eventually. But I wasn’t expecting for it to happen so soon nor so abruptly.

The weekend wasn’t even over before the cloud I had been floating on dissipated and I found myself free falling, entirely unprepared, toward the harsh reality of earth. I hadn’t even had the chance to see the cast list for myself yet.

I suppose there’s no way for you to ever be adequately emotionally prepared to sky dive. But the show always must go on.

December 11, 2011 brought a plot twist into my story that I never could have prepared for. Nancy’s passing broke parts of me that I didn’t even know I had, much less that those parts could be broken.

My cheeks burned from crying so much.


I had never gone sky diving. I was going to have to rapidly teach myself to deploy my parachute blindly, or be dismembered by the rocky reality awaiting my descent into grief.

I opted to deploy my parachute. Theatre, by the grace of God, simply afforded me the tools and instruction I needed in order to do so.

The show must go on. And I intended to be a part of it.

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Me, scrawling my initial next to my name on the cast list of Annie, the Wednesday after Nancy died and my first day back at school. By placing my initial next to my name, I was indicating to the directors that I accepted my role.


I immersed myself in Annie. It provided the ready distraction I needed to limp through those first few months after Nancy’s death. Nearly everyday, I sang some portion of the phase: “The sun’ll come out, tomorrow. Bet’cha bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun.” I lived and breathed those words. They became my mantra. Yes, “weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Annie was suddenly much bigger than simply the realization of 2006 Amy’s dreams – it salvaged and rescued 2012 Amy. I had to make Nancy proud. I had to finish what I started. For me, it wasn’t a choice; it was a duty. Nancy would be so disappointed if I dropped out on her account. I couldn’t disappoint my beloved sister.

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Sandy. 


I would never wish that anyone lose someone close to them. It is a wound that never entirely heals, it’s merely a wound you learn to live with. However, God, in His omniscience and grace, brilliantly timed the death of my sister in a way that allowed for the imminent and immediate distraction of both me and two of my sisters, KristiAnn and Emily (who were also cast in Annie.)

Annie became my parachute. And for that, I’m forever grateful.

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NYC, what is it about you? 

Even losing Nancy was an act of inexplicable grace. Whether I had realized it or not, I was still living a predominantly works-driven, legalistic faith. Legalistic faith is an unsustainable one, and wreaks havoc to the soul. I didn’t understand the gospel. I didn’t understand grace. I only understood performance. But when you lose someone so close to you, there’s no room for performance. Simply functioning requires any energy you possess. The masks, the make-up, the costumes you wear in your daily life are stripped away, and the truth of who you are is spotlighted: a broken vessel, in desperate need of grace. However, while the performer in me was entirely incapable of saving me, God still made use of the performer in me to save me. It’s this beautiful, glorious oxymoron.

God is good. 

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The Miracle Worker is the story of how Annie Sullivan drew young Helen Keller out of the dark, lonely world she was living in and taught her to speak through sign language. Annie is the story of an eleven year old orphan living in the slums of New York City. Through a stroke of incredible luck, she meets and is eventually adopted by a millionaire, Daddy Warbucks.

Both of them are stories of rescue; of people discovering their voice through immense hardship and tragedy.
God wanted to equip me to do the same.


The first Broadway show I saw was Wicked. For my sixteenth birthday, Mark and Tami Adams, my best friend’s parents, bought both her and I tickets to see it when it came to Rochester.

The May after Nancy died and after Annie closed, I got to travel to New York City on the Drama Club trip and see Wicked in the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway, due to the immense generosity and determination of my friends (they both convinced my parents to let me go on the trip and fundraised for me so that I could go.)

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Both times, I was was overwhelmed and amazed by Elphaba’s (the green “wicked” witch) bravery in the face of immense pushback and misinformation. She had the courage of conviction to do what she knew to be right, even when Glinda, her very best friend, didn’t.

And she wasn’t celebrated for it. In fact, she was persecuted for her honesty and bravery. She was rejected and detested by the people of Oz. (Mark 6:4)

I deeply craved that certainty of purpose. However, I failed to count the cost (Luke 14:25-33). I failed to recognize that to much is given, much is required. (Luke 12:48)

I have been given much, so much. I had the opportunity to not only be Nancy’s sister, but to also be her very best friend. I also have been given much through her death, in being afforded the opportunity to know God intimately, in a way that few my age are able to.

For a long time, I resented these things. I’m only 23 but my mind is older. I hated being “different.” I idolized normalcy. I resisted drawing as near to God as He was calling, fearing loneliness and further separation from my peer group. I feared ending up alone if I sought God too closely. I feared rejection.

Fear was choking my joy.

But God is a jealous God. He will not be upstaged by our petty desires. He was not interested in playing a supporting role in my life. He wanted to play the lead. He wanted me to trust that He was sufficient to meet my every need.

I’m ashamed to admit how long I resisted allowing God to take center stage in my life. Even now, it’s a daily choice, a daily commitment. But I had to realize, like Elphaba, that any “love” that require I pursue God less comes at much too high a cost.

I may not have chosen to go sky diving. But I think that while I’m here, I’ll try defying gravity.

 

Overcoming the Judas Complex

Redefining Revolution


Through the Redefinition of Christ

Growing up in a family that regularly attended church, I was familiarized with all of the “classic” Old Testament Bible stories at a young age. I knew all about Joshua’s epic march around the walls of Jericho. I could tell the story of Noah’s Ark in my sleep. I knew about Jacob wrestling with God, Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale, and the plagues of Egypt.

Thus, at a young age, I was inundated by stories of a people who repeatedly acted out of unbelief and lack of trust towards their God. However, at a young age, I was also inundated stories of a God Who, in spite of the unbelief and lack of trust repeatedly demonstrated by His people, relentlessly pursued them and came through for them – again and again and again and again.

And again.

And again.

And (you guessed it) again.

“If we are faithless, He remains faithful,
For He cannot disown Himself.”
2 Timothy 2:13

As a child, I scoffed at the foolishness of the Israelites. Would they ever learn? Didn’t they understand Who their God was yet? How could any one group of people be so entirely dense? It boggled my mind.

I made a promise to myself: I would never be like that. Unfortunately, what I failed to realize in my innocent (albeit severely misguided) pridefulness was that I already was like that. The option for me not to be like that didn’t exist. It wasn’t accessible to me. Unbelief ran as deep as my blood and as sure as my bones.

Oh, sweet irony.

Now when I read the stories of the Israelites, I find caricatures of myself in the pages. Sometimes I have to stop and reassure myself that, yes, I am in fact still reading my Bible, I didn’t somehow just accidentally start looking into a mirror.

It’s quite humbling.

I guess that’s what the Bible means when it says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23)

All. 

As in
everyone.

As in
me.

The unbelief and lack of faith of the Israelites doesn’t end upon the conclusion of the Old Testament – it continues seamlessly into the New Testament. It seems faithlessness is the norm. Even the disciples, the twelve men that Jesus called, demonstrated faithlessness more often than not. These men were Jesus’ closest confidants and the men who literally walked alongside Him, God in flesh, on earth.

Let me repeat to drive this point home: The men that had the privilege of spending the most time with God in the flesh, who witnessed miracle after miracle, who did even the most mundane, human tasks with him, such as eating and sleeping, found it difficult to trust Him.

So the struggle of trusting God? It’s not a new one, nor it is a unique one.

“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new?’
It has been already
in the ages before us.”
Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

In fact, this struggle with faith is practically as old as time itself. It was introduced in the Garden of Eden – a place which was the physical epitome of perfection and beauty – by Adam and Eve – the first humans ever created. Choosing to trust God couldn’t have possibly been made easier for them. They lived in paradise. They had the opportunity to daily walk with God in the Garden. And yet, they still ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – the only thing God had explicitly commanded them not to do. Adam and Eve are the original “you had one job” meme.*


* Bible scholars predominantly agree that Adam and Eve made this choice within a matter of a few days of inhabiting the Garden of Eden (if not the very first day). It did not take long for sin to enter the world and mar God’s perfect creation.

Got a grievance with God? Finding yourself paralyzed with doubt? Honey please, you’re not that special. With all due respect, join the club.

To know this struggle is commonplace is simultaneously immensely discouraging and immensely encouraging.

Discouragement: We are prone to be skeptical of God. We are prone to repeatedly make idols of ourselves – the created – and assume that we know better than our Creator (Romans 1:25). Idolatry leads to our own undoing and places us back into bondage. Apart from Christ, we are hopelessly depraved and endlessly flawed.

Encouragement: We cannot save ourselves! Nor does God ask us to! “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of Godnot by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, emphasis mine.) We are not alone in our struggle, nor was it ever ours to fix. Our struggle is not unique or new. Even though the Bible assures us repeatedly that in this world we will** have trouble, we are also invited to take heart, for our God has overcome the world! (John 16:33). The gospel is the beginning and end of everything.


** “Will” is the word that the Bible specifically uses, it is not my word of choice. We will have trouble. We can depend on that, and are called to anticipate it. However this doesn’t mean we have to live in fear. It means we should expect it, and equip ourselves for the trouble that will inevitably come through “putting on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-18).

Recently, God has been teaching me how pathetically small my view of Him is. It’s embarrassing, really.

“To admit that there is One who lies beyond us, who exists outside of all our categories, who will not be dismissed with a name, who will not appear before the bar of our reason, nor submit to our curious inquiries: this requires a great deal of humility, more than most of us possess, so we save face by thinking God down to our level, or at least down to where we can manage Him.”
– A. W. Tozer

I am majoring in public relations. I am literally investing thousands of dollars studying the art of knowing how to save face. As a person, I am naturally disposed to doing so. I am currently in the process of honing every necessary skillset that will allow me to be an effective liaison between a company and its various “publics.”

But God does His own public relations. I do both myself and Him a disservice when I decide Who He is (or rather, more accurately, Who I think He should be) rather than accepting Him for Who He actually is. In deciding Who I think God should be and how He should work, I am trying to manipulate a God that can’t be manipulated. I’m trying to manipulate a situation that’s not mine to handle. It’s idolatry. I’m essentially deciding that I know how to be God better than God does.

(Did everyone else just have a déjà vu moment of reading about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden earlier, or was that just me?)

The apple doesn’t fall too far from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, folks.

Boxes

As a girl who is equally enthusiastic about fashion and make-up as she is about mudding and camping, I have struggled with how to identify myself. I’m not quite high maintenance enough to be considered the classic girly-girl, yet I don’t quite fulfill the stereotypical tomboy definition either. One night, sitting on a rock underneath the Adirondack stars, I voiced this frustration to my friend Emily:

“People don’t know how to define me.don’t even know how to define me. I apparently encompass too many of all the things, but not quite enough of any of them, and it confuses and intimidates people. I can’t be stuffed into a box, so people don’t really know what to do with me. It makes it hard for me to know where I fit.”

I will never forget Emily’s response to my jumbled lament.

“Amy,” Emily said quietly, turning and looking me directly in the eye, “It doesn’t matter whether people can put you in a box or not. You don’t need to be defined.”

Emily paused thoughtfully, glancing at the night sky while grabbing my knee reassuringly.

“But, Amy, even when someone tries to put you in a box – even if that someone is you – remember that boxes are made to be open.

The beauty surrounding us in that moment echoed her words. Everything around me – the wonderful mystery that is night sky, the depth and stillness of a lake asleep, the silent stolid elegance of ancient trees – these all defied boxes. When placed against the backdrop of infinity, my question seemed simple…even childish.

God does not belong in a box. When we attempt to put Him in one, it demonstrates both our lack of faith and how terribly shallow our understanding of Him is. Not to mention, that we fail to actually learn Who He is once we’ve decided Who we think He should be, and this does violence to our soul.

The Judas Complex

Judas missed out on Who Jesus actually was, and Judas was one of Jesus’ chosen twelve disciples.

What a grave misfortune. I can think of few things worse than having known Jesus on earth, and yet having never actually  known Him. Granted, Judas wasn’t the first person who claimed to know Jesus without truly knowing Him, and he certainly isn’t the last. However, he is probably one of the most famous, if not the most famous of those people. Thus, I’ve affectionally dubbed the act of deciding Who God should be and that He owes you something as the Judas Complex (a complex I believe we all have to varying degrees – I know I do.)

Judas Iscariot is the disciple made notorious by his betrayal of Jesus Christ to the authorities with a kiss. Besides that, not too much is known about him. It is evident that even prior to the betrayal of Jesus, he was not exactly a paragon of virtue. Judas was the keeper of the money box for the disciples, and evidently used his trusted position to repeatedly embezzle money from it (John 12:6.)

Still, most of us have a hard time imagining being the person that betrayed Jesus – even if Judas didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God as He claimed, wasn’t it self-evident that He was, at the very least, a good man? So how could Judas betray him?

I think that Judas maybe did believe that Jesus was Who He said He was, but Judas disagreed with how Jesus, in His omniscience and omnipotence, was handling things. The Jews had been waiting for their Messiah, their Savior, for a long time – since their establishment as a nation. Since the Israelites had been anticipating their Messiah for centuries, as a nation they had decided what their deliverance should and would look like. It was a common belief that their Messiah – their “Savior” – would deliver the Israelites from whatever nation was currently oppressing them – in Jesus’ time, that nation happened to be the Romans. So you can imagine Judas’ bitter disappointment when it slowly became evident through Jesus’ ministry years that due to Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, overthrowing the Romans wasn’t on the agenda. Obviously, we can only speculate what drove Judas to betray Jesus, but I imagine that it was – at least partially – Judas’ last desperate attempt to force Jesus’ hand. Perhaps Judas thought that if faced with the consequence of death by the authorities, Jesus would rise up and finally overthrow the Romans as he, and so many others, had been wanting and anticipating from the Messiah.

Too bad Jesus was only concerned about people’s souls.

Poor Judas. If he had only taken the time to actually see and get to know Jesus, he would have realized that Jesus, Who was God in flesh, cannot be manipulated. But rather than being terrified by his lack of control over Jesus and his circumstances, Judas would have found peace in the abiding goodness of God. He would have found assurance in God’s sovereignty. He would have rested in God’s promises.

If only Judas had known that boxes are made to be open.

Instead, he essentially sold his soul for thirty pieces of silver, and ended his own life in bitter regret.

“Up until that moment of betrayal, Judas seems no better or worse than any of the other disciples.
But he has been defined by the worst thing he did.  What Judas did is not okay, but I think he holds up a very important mirror to our own human condition.”
– Rev. Kate Bottley, Church of England cleric

As an adult, I empathize with the Israelites and Judas, and I weep at my own perpetual foolishness. Will I ever learn? Don’t I understand Who my God is yet? How can any one person be so entirely dense? It boggles my mind.

Ironically, most people think that “ability to spin” a situation is what makes a public relations agent successful, when the opposite is true. To be a successful public relations agent, telling the truth and learning to work within what the truth of a situation – even when the truth is ugly or atrocious – is paramount. This is what we need to do with our faith. We need to take God as He is (John 14:6), and stop trying to “spin” Him into what we want Him to be or what would be more convenient for us.

God simply is (Exodus 3:14.) And unfortunately*** for us, He seems to be much more concerned with our salvation and progressive sanctification than eliminating every Roman Empire that oppresses us.

Sometimes, revolution is as simple as relationship.


*** Let there be no confusion: I was employing satire and sarcasm in that statement and my use of the word unfortunately.

Nancy’s Fragrance: Journey

“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.”
2 Corinthians 2:14-15

“Amy, check out this Mary Kay perfume. I’ve decided it’s going to be my new signature scent.”
Nancy smiled broadly at me as she spritzed a small amount of the perfume into the air so I could take a whiff.
“Mm,” I inhaled, “it smells just like you were meant to.”
I didn’t say that lightly. The perfume smelled light, airy, and flowery, which suited Nancy perfectly.
“I think I’m going to wear it for the first time tonight,” Nancy declared, donning a sparkling lavender dress, and checking her reflection in the mirror as she pulled on a sweater.
“You definitely should,” I confirmed. “It’s the perfect night to introduce your new ‘signature scent.'”

And so it was. It was December 1, 2011, Nancy and Jeriah’s one year anniversary and quite literally the first day of the rest of Nancy’s life. Little did we know we had less then ten days with Nancy on this side of heaven.

At the time, the conversation did not seem at all significant. Just two sisters, chatting easily as one prepares to go out. I was sitting on Nancy’s bed, offering occasional opinions and pointers, helping her with her hair, hyping her up with compliments. These interactions with Nancy came as naturally to me as breathing does. It was an integral part of my life, as familiar to me as my own hand.

Nancy misted the perfume over her outfit and turned to me. “Thoughts?” she inquired.
“You look perfect; Jeriah will love it,” I responded with a smile.
“Thanks,” Nancy grinned eagerly, grabbed her coat and purse, and swept out her bedroom door. I followed her down the stairs, wanting to catch Jeriah’s reaction when he saw her. I was not disappointed. His eyes lit up upon seeing her, and a smile creased the corners of his mouth and dimpled his cheeks. I sighed inwardly. This was what dreams are made of. I couldn’t even imagine the joy of looking at someone with that measure of pure love, and seeing it reflected back at me in their eyes. Mom snapped a few pictures of them before they left, and then together they floated happily out the door.


Ten days later, on December 11, I looked into those same eyes that had stared so blissfully at my sister on December 1st languish under the crushing weight of grief. As Jeriah and I sat next to each other overwhelmed by tears and attempting to process what had just happened, we each had the same thought: what next? Neither of us knew what our futures would look like without Nancy in it. Without Nancy, it seemed the sun could go on rising and setting but the world would still be dark. The future suddenly seemed to be a dark and cold abyss, robbed of the sun.


I selected that same lavender dress that Nancy had wore on her final date with Jeriah to have her laid out in her casket in. Interestingly, without her soul filling her body and movement filling her limbs, the sparkles seemed muted, even dull by contrast to when she wore it on her date. At my request, in a vain attempt to mask chemical smell, her coffin was drenched with the same Mary Kay perfume she had worn that night; the perfume she had declared her new ‘signature scent:’ Journey. The Mary Kay website describes this perfume as a “light, sheer floral that attracts the woman who has a zest for living life’s adventures, everyday.”

It smells just like Nancy was meant to.


Psalm 139:16 states: “All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.” Nancy’s death, though seemingly on the cusp of the next chapter in her journey and untimely, was not a surprise to God. Even Jesus couldn’t be crucified without God’s allowance. When Pilate asked Jesus if He realized that he had the authority to release Him and the authority to crucify Him, Jesus blithely answered that Pilate would have no authority if it had not been granted to him from God above (John 19:9-11.) Thus, nothing, not even death, can occur apart from God’s allowance.

“If you are going to be used by God, He will take you through a multitude of experiences that are not meant for you at all. They are meant to make you useful in His hands.”
– Oswald Chambers

The longer I am in Christ, the more it is impressed upon me that “my” story is not “mine” at all. Nor was it ever meant to be. My story is reminiscent of Who my God is, and should be treated as such. It is idolatry to treat it otherwise.

Jesus’ experience on earth wasn’t for Him at all. He didn’t need saving. His life on earth was an outpouring of gratitude towards God and all that He is. It wasn’t self-indulgent, and it certainly wasn’t glamorous. It was tainted with grief and hardship, because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and even a perfect Person is affected by the consequences of imperfection in this fallen world. Jesus’ life illustrated to us what it is to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

Jesus’ journey was marked by such a fragrant life of obedience that the fragrance is still lingering today on the gospel, some two thousand odd years later.

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“Live each day in view of eternity.”

Nancy’s life wasn’t “for” her. Rather, it was for all the people she touched through her genuine kindness and thoughtfulness. Her fragrant journey still lingers on them.

Her fragrant journey still lingers on me. And because of that, a new fragrance is being developed through my story, one with hints of floral and sunshine, as beautiful as Nancy was, as unique as I am, as creative as my Savior is. But my fragrance is not a stagnant one, it is getting interwoven with the fragrance of others as it intersects with their lives and their stories. Through the intersection of all of these fragrances, God is pulling out the fragrance of redemption. My life is only a microscopic example of this. God is not only doing work apart from me, but in spite of me.

A.W. Tozer once said, “Outside the will of God, there’s nothing I want. Inside the will of God, there’s nothing I fear.” That is the freedom that I have in Christ.

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Under Construction

“Almost all of the really beautiful, profound things God is going to do in your life are going to take place over a long period of time, through a lot of ordinary.”
– Matt Chandler

Since I’ve lived in New York State my whole life, I, like all true upstaters, am immensely adept at complaining about the cold, bleak winter that darkens about six months of the year (give or take). It’s a point of solidarity among New Yorkers, something that you can reference to a complete stranger and likely receive an earful on.

However, I don’t actually hate winter. I grew up right outside the snow belt and a recipient of Lake Effect Snow, so winter is like an old familiar friend to me. I enjoy how muted and fresh the world looks under a fresh blanket of snow. I like to ski. I like to sip hot chocolate, curl up next to a fireplace and immerse myself in a book. I like wool socks, scarves, and cardigans.

Yet, in spite of all that, this year I needed it to be spring in a way I haven’t previously. It has been a long, dark, cold few months in my personal life. I am sick of the outdoors reflecting my inward state.

I am ready for growth.

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks. Its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”
– Cynthia Occelli

To be clear, I am not intimidated by winter – both inwardly or outwardly.

As someone who struggles with depression, the seasons serve as a source of continual personal encouragement to me. The seasons are a tangible reminder that change can be beautiful and that everything is impermanent. I am not going to get perpetually stuck in the winter months. Spring will come. Beauty will burst forth, and I will reap what I’ve sown. And, I’m certainly not scared of struggling. Shaming struggling is a facade. Everyone struggles; there’s no reason for shame. Thus it’s a facade I refuse to participate in.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I am relieved that it’s finally spring.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
– Albert Camus


Was it Necessary to Do It?

I tell you that ant is very alive!
Look at how he fusses at being stepped on.
–  Mary Oliver

Even my church building has been a source of ready encouragement to me.

About a year ago, the church that I attend, Goodwill – New Paltz, finally had the privilege of opening the doors of its permanent location for the very first time. Together, we rejoiced as a church, as this is something we had been praying for consistently for the better part of a year and a half. Previously, we had been meeting in the Community Center in town, which, though accommodating, presented its own unique set of challenges. Fellowship was significantly hampered after church due to the fact other groups also used the building and we had to vacate the premises by a certain time. Not to mention the extraordinary outside effort and time it took each week to completely set up and tear down all of the chairs, tables and instruments required for both services.

And, not only did we finally have a permanent location, but the building that my church gets to call its home is, by no exaggeration, one of the most historically significant buildings in the Village of New Paltz. (Interestingly, though the building itself dates back to the Civil War era, my church was founded in 1729 – prior to the American Revolution.)

Feeding the 5000: Transforming a Steakhouse into a Church

The building that now houses my church has traditionally been at the center of the culture and hubbub of community activities. (Coincidence? I think not. God is good.) In fact, in 2004, the building was officially declared a landmark by the New Paltz Village Historic Preservation Commission. The two-story, 3,200 square foot brick building that sits on the corner of North Chestnut Street was initially built as a Village Hall in in 1864. However, it has worn a variety of titles throughout its history. It has been a traditional theatre and a “moving-pictures theater” on multiple occasions, (usually both at the same time,) as well as an Opera House, Community Center, and various restaurants. It has also housed a hardware store, a school of ballet, a barber shop, and a shoe repair shop. It has even briefly housed residents! It has hosted everything from basketball games to barn dances.

Pastor Josh has remarked on numerous occasions that: “To know that we get to be the stewards of this jewel of New Paltz – to me, the most iconic building in the Village – comes with a sense of great joy and great responsibility.”

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Stupidly excited. God is moving in New Paltz, and it’s a privilege to be a part of that.

Turning a restaurant into a church is no small feat, however. Thus, for the better part of the first few months that we occupied it as a church, it was in a state of obvious construction. At this point, everything that is left to do is primarily cosmetic, but there was something very cool about worshipping God in a space that was still in the process of realizing its full potential.

After all, aren’t we all in a state of perpetual construction before Him?

“We, in Communion with Jesus Christ are a Community of friends and families who love and trust Him and passionately pursue the Christ-like Character essential to fulfill our Commission to change our lives and world for Him.”
(Goodwill’s purpose and identity statement)

We live in a society that rewards and celebrates the “big things” – starring in a play, releasing a single on iTunes, getting a metal at the Olympics. Social media has only contributed to this propensity to play into the highlight reel of our lives. But what’s not seen by the masses is the hours of rehearsal, the voice lessons, the frustrations, and years of daily pushing the physical limits that led up to each of these individual successes.

What’s not seen by a visitor of Upstate New York in the spring is the winter that proceeded it. What’s not seen by a visitor of my church now is spackle behind the painted walls; the long days put in by Doug Jeffries and many unnamed others to transform a restaurant into a functional church.

We need to stop waking up and waiting for something wonderful to happen. We are that something wonderful. Let’s make it happen.

“Wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight.
At the sound of His roar, sorrows will be no more.
When He bares His teeth, winter meets its death,
And when He shakes His mane, we shall have spring again.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe


Where, oh death, is your victory?
Where, oh death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory 
through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 15:55-57

One of my least favorite phrases that has wormed its way into the Christian vernacular is: “God gives His hardest battles to His strongest soldiers.” (It’s right up there with: “God helps a man who helps himself.” Gag me.)

I detest this cliché for a myriad of reasons. First of all, it’s not Biblically grounded. It completely

  1. Disregards that the only way any of us stand a chance in battle is because of Who God is, not because of who we are. Please. Let’s not get presumptuously cocky. (I don’t know about you, but pride is never something that my Bible speaks of highly. But maybe you have a different translation?)
  2. Ignores how someone becomes a “strong soldier.” As aforementioned, just like most success, becoming a soldier is preceded and continued by a string of minute decisions daily, small, uncelebrated, and sometimes even unnoticed acts of obedience.

To be entirely transparent, I have often longed that the battles that God has given me to face and carry – my brother’s stillbirth, Nancy’s untimely passing, my depression – could be re-gifted to some other soldier. Not that I would ever wish sorrow on anyone else. But at the same time, I whine at God, why me?

I often get FOMO amongst my peers. Many of my friends my age have graduated college at this point, and are either in grad school or beginning their careers, getting married, or starting a family. I’m still struggling to keep my plants alive, and am not even yet settled enough somewhere to get a pet. My plans have been written and re-written over the course of the last few years, as what I want has changed, and I’ve been forced to take time off of school for the sake of my mental health (I’m actually on a leave of absence from school right now.)

In a way, experiencing grief so young feels like I got robbed of what remained of my youth, and was catapulted into adulthood without my consent or even any sort of warning. I was a senior in high school when Nancy died, on the cusp of finally experiencing the “best years of my life:” getting to discover who I was apart from my parents and hometown, and make irresponsible decisions without remorse. (I may have done that last thing anyway.)

I have often told God that if He wanted to place the calling He has on my life on someone else’s life, I’d be cool with it. (I’m not yet sure what He’s calling me to, but He has made it abundantly clear to me that He has work for me to do.) Because, the paradox of all of this is that “to much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48).

I have been given much, therefore much is required of me.

I personally would rather lie low. I’m rather fond of my bed. I’d be okay with just sliding by, unnoticed and uncelebrated, leading a “normal” life with “normal” activities. Unfortunately, that is just not accessible to me. God wants (and even demands) more for (and of) me.

So in trusting Him, I’m striving to celebrate the ordinary: this season of harrowing internal construction, even if it doesn’t look exactly how I had imagined or how I would have preferred. Fortunately, weather* it’s spring or winter, my Jesus is consistent in all seasons, and the gospel only gets sweeter with time.

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, Who is your life appears, then you will also appear with Him in glory.”
Colossians 3:2-4, emphasis mine

*entirely intentional.

 

Celebrating the Struggle: The ‘Already’ and the ‘Not Yet’

Reeling in “get tos.”

Throughout my lifetime I have had many people tell me that they look up to me – especially in recent years. They mean that figuratively, of course. (In the literal sense, I obviously look up to everyone.)

It is always immensely gratifying and humbling to be told that. However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that the attributes that they admire – “my” strength, “my” wisdom, “my” resilience – are attributes that have been borne of grief and pain. They are a direct result of what I’ve walked through and the faithfulness of my God in the midst of my pain. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the product of what they see in the day to day – the poise with which I’m able to carry myself and the things I’m able to accomplish – is the product of many lonely nights spent weeping and crying out to God, many days of just going through the motions, many days of making microscopic decisions of obedience in faith, even when I didn’t feel like it. It has not all been glorious or beautiful. In fact, more has probably been gruesome than beautiful or noteworthy. I actually am of the opinion that I look quite hideous when I cry.

I’m not sharing this to proclaim how “amazing” I am and toot my own horn, but rather to display the incredible faithfulness of my God. I know how often I’ve felt alone or even diminished by my struggle with grief and depression. Ironically, it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. In my experience it’s been all too easy to withdraw from people and isolate myself – which means it’s pretty easy to convince myself that I’m all alone and that no one understands because no one else is struggling the way I am. And how easy it would be for that perspective to remain unchallenged if I isolated myself and didn’t allow for others to speak truth into my life. Because the fact of the matter is that I’m not alone. Others are struggling and hurting. But unless you’re honest with yourself first, you can’t be honest with others. And it took me a longer time than I care to admit that I was struggling, because honestly, I’m a prideful person. I like being okay and pulling myself up by my own bootstraps (isn’t that the American Dream?)

Asking for help felt like admitting defeat. 

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As it would turn out, I was just admitting that I was human. 

It has been a rough few semesters for me. I had to take some incompletes last semester due to how crippling my depression became around the five year anniversary of Nancy’s passing. I’m still in the process of finishing the work. I’ve also had to withdraw from a few classes this semester due to some personal setbacks early on this semester – meaning my college graduation is likely put off by another semester.

I’m tired.

However. I don’t “have to” struggle. I “get to.”

This doesn’t have to be my story. It gets to be. I have a story, not of defeat or failure, but rather one of victory; the story of how a girl was able to still finish college in spite of losing her sister at the onset, due to the faithfulness of her God. So it took her a little longer – so what? All the more time for God to be glorified. After all, as a Christian I don’t fight for victory. I fight from victory. Death is already defeated, and Jesus is risen. I serve a living God.

 “And Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.
– C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe


“I am increasingly suspicious that laughter and tears are not opposites, but that somehow, in their fullness, the two run into one.”
– Diona Southcott


“There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.”
– C. S. Lewis

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Beaver Lodge, Beaver Camp. I’ve spent many hours in worship, quality conversation, prayer and stillness here. 

“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow Me cannot be my disciple.'”
Luke 14:25-27

Jesus didn’t “have to” come to earth. He “got to.” He chose love over fear.

If that’s what Jesus did, what other choice do I have? There is no other choice. I get to choose love over fear. As Thomas Merton so eloquently puts it, “Our job is to love people without stopping to inquire whether or not they’re worthy.”

Now, I am in no way Jesus. But I have the privilege of knowing Him. And that changes everything, including my suffering.

Especially my suffering.

To be clear, it doesn’t change the fact that I suffer. Being a Christian is not some get-out-of-jail-free card that acts as a prevention against suffering. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. In fact, it is just the opposite. It invites it. After all, if you want to look like Jesus, you’re going to get some scars.

As Romans 8:16-17 states:
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. And if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.

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Imperfect yet thankful.

If Christianity prevented suffering, wouldn’t everyone convert? (I mean, it follows right?) However, as my pastor says, Christianity is a terrible religion – because it’s not based on your merit. It’s based entirely on Christ’s merit. Being a Christian is not all sunshine and unicorns. In fact, the gospel is the story of Jesus being nailed to a cross – the most tortuous way that the Romans had devised to kill people. And they were experts at killing people. They thrived on it.

But the story doesn’t end with Jesus dying on the cross. It ends with Him defeating death – the ultimate consequence of sin – by being resurrected back to life.

As Romans 8:18 goes on to say:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

My suffering is not the end of my story. It’s the beginning of a tale of God’s eternal glory.

“There is always enough grace for you, Amy.”
-Jarron Widrick

(a reminder from a beloved friend of mine recently that I think everyone needs)

Adventure in Hope

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Last spring, I decided to get a tattoo – partially in memory of Nancy, and partially for my own sake, as a constant personal reminder. I got the words “adventure in hope” written as a permanent reminder and memoriam on my upper left hand shoulder. It was a phrase I had coined upon initially moving to New Paltz, after years of debating how I wanted to honor Nancy. I wanted something simple but meaningful to me – words I would carry with me as a banner going forward in my life, and a reminder of where I came from. I finally settled on the phrase “adventure in hope” for these reasons:

  • I want my life to be an adventure. I want to love boldly, live joyfully, give freely. In truth, I think that my life already is one. I think that loving people unconditionally is the most adventurous thing you will ever do, and is entirely too rare.
  • Also, the term adventure reminds me of the summers I spent serving at Beaver Camp, the place that introduced me to adventure, my previously unexplored capabilities and interests, and my love of ministry.
  • Hope is a concept that became deeply meaningful to me after my mom had a stillbirth between Lorilee and Sadie Mae’s birth. It was then I discovered what a “living hope” meant (1 Peter 1:3-9). In retrospect, I can see how God used that time to prepare me for an even more devastating loss, the death of Nancy. The penmanship of the word hope on my tattoo is written in such a way that is intended to mimic Nancy’s handwriting.
  • But why the phrase “adventure in hope?” Simple. Adventure is both a noun and a verb, and hope is both a noun and a verb. Meaning they’re both things that exist in their own right, but that they’re also things that you can actively do. In my life, I intend for them to be paired together; I intend to adventure in hope. Both in knowing God, and in making Him known. (Yes, my tattoo has a dual meaning.)

The problem with knowing God is that you get a tiny taste of perfection on this side of heaven – in this woefully imperfect world. This longing to be with Christ only increases and makes some days on this fallen earth nothing short of torturous. My heart is broken by this dark, sin-encumbered world, and the despair we’re seeing as a result.

But that’s nothing – as one of my closest friends, Rachel Musteen so succinctly puts it: “God lives in a state of perpetually having His heart stomped on.”

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Philippians 1:21-24

“As Christians, we live in the ‘already’ and ‘not yet.'”
– Pastor Joshua Stewart

As I was reminded so boldly at a wedding for two dear friends of mine recently:

“Your ministry matters.”
– Dierdra Moran

You might not know the impact you’re having. But if you’re still on this earth, it is for a purpose. Cling to that truth. And rejoice in it. Your struggle is not in vain or pointless…ever.

I serve an intentional God.

“…all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.”
Psalm 139:14bc