Reflections on 11 Years

Vows11 years ago today, we stood facing each other; hands clasped, gazing into one another’s youthful-faces at an alter in a little white country church. We pledged our vows to one another in front of our God and our dearest friends that we would love and cherish each other in good times, in healthy times, in times of abundance, and also in the times that were not so good, not so healthy, and not so abundant. We also declared on that day, through verse, song, and homily that we wanted our marriage to be a story of God’s faithfulness.

Wedding ProgramWe had everyone leaf through the blue hymnals in their pews and sing our favorite hymn, ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ as a testimony and prophetic anthem over our marriage that God’s faithfulness would be our theme. The verse on our not-so-cool wedding program (Thanks Pinterest for being a decade too late) was Psalm 115:1 “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory because of your love and faithfulness.”

We didn’t know much as wrinkle-free, and nearly carefree 21 year olds, but we knew that we wanted our marriage to serve a greater purpose than ourselves –We wanted our marriage to be as much about loving others as it was about loving each other. We wanted to serve God better as a couple than we would individually. We wanted our marriage to glorify God and point to God’s faithfulness.

As enthusiastic not-yet-college-graduates, we had vague grand dreams of what that would look like and ambition to fill in the plot holes. We envisioned that we would do significant things as a couple that would be a story of God’s faithfulness in mending our broken world.

What we forgot, in our grand, innocent, well-meaning pre-marital vision, was that we were the characters in God’s story, not the author – and characters don’t get a say in their own story. Thus far, the Author of our story has seemed far less interested in compelling plot lines and heroic daring adventures and far more interested in character development.

It seems as though the majority of our 11 years of marriage have been spent on developing our character – individually and as a team. Committed, long-term relationships have a way of developing character, don’t they? For that matter, life stuff has a way of developing character. But marriage has a knack for drawing out the hidden, dark, flawed stuff we can hide from most friends and it also has the potential to draw out the deepest reserves of beauty, strengths, and gifts. Through our married years, character has been forged through fire and desert and valley and straight roads, too. We have learned about perseverance, faith, faithfulness, trust, forgiveness, fortitude, and selfless love.

12 years ago, our soon-to-be married selves didn’t realize how much we needed our own restoration individually and how much we would need it as a couple. We thought God’s faithfulness would be more evidenced through our marriage, but instead, His faithfulness has been most evidenced in our marriage. And while that type of story rarely makes a best-seller list, it’s a powerful story best told around tables filled with good food, on couches with dear ones, and sometimes over coffee with a friend of a friend who needs to hear that story. We have found that as we allow others to see God’s work – the messy, arduous, refining work of restoring us as individuals and as a couple, His faithfulness is most evident.

And so, after 11 years, our story isn’t one about a power duo changing the world, and it isn’t a top seller – in fact, our story doesn’t even have a terribly coherent plotline. But really, isn’t it the messy, imperfect, broken, vulnerable stories that make the best backdrops for stories of God’s faithfulness and not the strong, perfect, neat, and tidy ones?

We couldn’t have imagined the chapters that would emerge when we chose “Not to us, O LORD, but to Your name be the glory, because of Your love and faithfulness” as the back cover to our story. But we are grateful that our story is our story, and more, we are so grateful that God is faithful.

Here’s to 11 years of character development and God’s faithfulness and the cherry on top of friendship, joy, and laughter. Here’s to our marriage and our story and the stories that have yet to be written. I love you, Adam.

Outside Wedding

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My Prayers Today

“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy,” has been on repeat in my prayer life today. It’s my go-to prayer when I simply don’t have words for the indescribable ugly that occurs in our world. I’ve been praying that prayer more frequently, it seems. There is so much tragedy around us. What happened last night in South Carolina is devastating.

Today my prayers have sounded something like:

Lord have mercy on South Carolina.

Christ have mercy on our nation.

Lord have mercy on the black community.

And Christ have mercy on the white community, too.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m praying for a different kind of mercy for the black community than I am the white community. There are, after all, different kinds of mercy.

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For the black community, I am praying for the sort of mercy that is kindness or help given to people who are in a desperate situation. I cannot imagine the grief that the families of victims are experiencing today, and I cannot imagine the collective grief of the black community as they grieve yet another loss; another act of violence; another string of injustices from the justice system. I’m praying for my friends as they are having conversations with their kiddos tonight about why people with dark skin keep getting hurt in our country. I’m praying for a mercy I can’t comprehend for grief and anger that I will never feel. I’m thankful for a Holy Spirit who can intercede when we don’t have words, because I don’t have the right words. Christ have mercy on the hurting tonight.

For my white community, particularly my white Christian community, I am praying for the sort of mercy that is kind or forgiving treatment of someone who should be treated harshly. Lord have mercy for our ignorance, for our out-of-place opinions, for our lack of ability to grieve with others, for our lack of perspective. Christ have mercy on us that it takes a shooting in a church to get our attention when shooting in the streets should have awoken our cries for justice for our neighbors. Lord have mercy on those of us have called this “religious persecution” when we should be calling it what it is: Racism and hatred and terrorism. Christ have mercy on us for posts and comments that build up walls rather than tear down walls. Lord have mercy when we have been passive-ists and not peacemakers.

I long for a day when I don’t have to pray separate prayers for the black community and the white community – I don’t like segregated prayers but tonight, I don’t know how else to pray to our merciful God.

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Dark Night in the Woods

Sometime during the course of late night conversations sophomore year of college (which no doubt took place over greasy Dominoes pizza or handfuls of microwave popcorn), my girlfriends discovered that I had never been camping before.

That’s not entirely true. I had been sort of camping once before. My non-outdoorsy parents agreed to embark on a camping trip with family friends one summer but we bailed when the tents started buckling during a torrential downpour and we landed at a hotel.

IMG_9339So back to college: My gals decided that we should go on a fall camping trip to give me a proper first camping experience. The idea of camping didn’t seem awesome but the idea of missing out on time with my friends seemed less awesome, so I conceded. A few of the camping experts set to planning out supplies, meals, route, and campground while I took to planning my most outdoorsy-looking outfits (nailed it, right?).

Camping 2012One Friday after class, when the trip was planned out, we loaded up our old college cars and shipped off to The Gorge. I don’t remember what caused the delay; maybe someone couldn’t skip her last Friday class or we took too long packing (or posing for pictures of packing) or there was a traffic delay, but somehow we got to our parking site later than our resident camping experts had hoped and we were almost out of daylight. We loaded up our backs with big supply packs and set out on the long hike down into the gorge to our campground.

IMG_9338We had fewer headlamps than campers so the expert campwomen geared up, and us rookies lined up every other headlamp and kept close. Very shortly into our descent, we were in total darkness except for the light of the few headlamps. I was told to keep close, to not veer too far to the right or left (because of a drop off), and to trust my friends.

Two of the girls had grown up exploring and camping in the very woods we were slogging. They knew the path even in the dark. They wouldn’t let me and our other pals get hurt.

I trusted but I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t in control; I had no idea where I was, what was around me, and what was ahead of me. I didn’t even have charge over what I could see.

I trusted but I was fearful. No doubt my anxiety (i.e the ability to conjure up the grimmest of all possible scenarios) played out ugly scenes in my mind as we hiked in lightless silence.

I was reminded of this trip as I was reading treasured words of Amy Carmichael this week: “There can be no difficulty of travel that he does not understand. We are never alone as we penetrate the unknown. We cannot be lost there… He knoweth the way that I take… There is no darkness where He cannot find us.”

I’m feeling a lot these days like I did that dark night in the woods. I trust God, but I am uncomfortable with how little control I have. I trust God, but I am still fearful. My steps feel unsteady and I have little idea what is beside me or in front of me. I would really, really like to know what the woods look like. Walking in the dark is exhausting.

But I take solace in the knowledge that there is no darkness where He cannot find us and even more solace in the knowledge that He can see even when I cannot.

“Even the darkness will not be dark to You;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to You.” (Psalm 139:12)

IMG_9340We made it safely into the gorge that night and had a delicious dinner of steak and nearly raw potatoes. (Fire-roasted dinner takes time and hunger doesn’t breed patience). We set up our tents, roasted something sweet over the fire, learned how to pee in the woods, told ourselves that no bears or scary mountain people would attack us until we finally fell asleep.

When I woke up in the morning and emerged from my tent to the smell of pancakes over the fire, I couldn’t believe the view. We were deep in the heart of a beautiful valley, with autumn-toned trees decorating the canopy above. I looked up at the narrow, steep path we had trudged in the dark and thought that perhaps it was better that I hadn’t been able to see where I was walking. I thought perhaps the scary walk in the dark made the morning all the more beautiful.

Maybe one day, when this dark cancer trip ends, I will feel the same way.


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Snow and Silence before Spring

My husband was diagnosed with cancer in early October just before the weather cooled. He began intense chemotherapy treatments as frost began to make intricate designs on car windows in the dark hours of early mornings. Cold days were a perfect backdrop for the chemo days. Internally things felt cool, slow, and painful, just as they did outdoors.

During the first few weeks of treatment, as my partner’s body struggled to process all the chemicals being imported into his veins, I struggled to find words. I struggled to find words in my own head, I struggled to find words with friends, and I struggled to find words for God. After awhile, I was able to surrender the notion that I needed to say things to God and I found a quiet comfort in silence.

But after days of silence, maybe even weeks, I started to wonder why God was being so incredibly silent. I knew why I was being silent, but I expected that He could find words. I’ve been taught over the years “The number one reason that we can’t hear God is that we aren’t listening.” But there was plenty of silence, plenty of listening, plenty of wanting to hear God speak. Of all the seasons in my life that I thought I needed to hear from God, this was paramount.

Yet God remained so incredibly quiet: Present, but quiet.

One day, when I found a few words, I asked God, “Why are you being so quiet?

And an answer came. “I’m here, I’m just being silent with you. You don’t need any more noise, so I’m sitting in quiet with you. You know who I am and what I am capable of – I don’t need to remind you – so I’ll just sit here with you, instead.”

God with me, Immanuel: This revelation left me speechless in a totally different sort of wordlessness.

This winter was rather severe for the south. We had cold, ice, and snow that rivaled records. Southerners are good at hibernating in the winter but this year, we were all especially reclusive. Our bustling town was shut down for several weeks for unsavory road conditions, and all was quiet.

A quiet city was a good backdrop for my quieted prayer life. As God sat with me in mostly silence, there was a deepening trust, a deepening strength, and a deepening peace. Good things were happening deep in the soil of my soul in quiet and waiting.

“The snow-time is full of quiet secrets, too, for we are carefully keeping secrets with God about the growing things under the snow… There is no dancing with the daffodils. That comes afterwards. But there is trust.”– Amy Carmichael, Gold by Moonlight

I don’t suspect the breaking of silence had anything to do with the breaking of winter. But the timing is serendipitous. Somewhere in the ICU in the dark of night, I found my words again. Just as the daffodils are breaking through the callous soil and birds are finding their songs again, I have words for my thoughts and feels and longings and I am quite enjoying conversing with God again. Perhaps the conversations wouldn’t be so sweet had it not been for the long and quiet winter.

“Sometimes there are beautiful things that would not have been if there had not been snow.” – A.C., Gold by Moonlight

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“O Thou beloved child of my desire,

Whether I lead thee through green valleys,

By still waters,

Or though fire,

Or lay thee down in silence under snow,

Though ay weather, and whatever

Cloud may gather

Wind may blow –

Wilt thou love Me? trust me? praise me?”

A.C., Gold by Moonlight

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Fears and Darkness and Maybe a Little Bravery

For most of the childhood years I can remember, I lived in a little white cape cod parsonage that bordered the property of the church my dad pastored. There were loads of windows in that home and bright light streamed into almost every room – except for the basement. I know that most basements are scary, but believe me when I say that this one was especially eery. Perhaps it was the dark wood paneling that accentuated the lack of natural light, or the damp basement smell that permeated the space, or the narrow poorly-lit hall that led to a haunted-house-esque closet, or perhaps it was just all the centipedes (shudder).

I don’t think I ever knew exactly what I was afraid of in that basement, I’m not sure I even let my mind wander to all of the possibilities that I was worried actually existed there. But I was, undoubtedly, afraid of that place.

As much as possible, I avoided descending into the basement by my lonesome, but avoidance was inescapable on Saturday mornings. Saturday mornings were cleaning day at the Shuey Shack and vacuuming stairs happened to be on my chore list. I have incredibly distinct memories of getting out the trusty dust-buster and trudging to the top of the basement stairs. I remember my heart rate increasing as I inched further and further down the stairs, further into the darkness, further in to the scary possibilities that I couldn’t hear sneaking up behind me because I was using a noisy vacuum.

I’m not sure when it started, but at some point during the Fear-Fest-Vacuum-Sessions, I started singing a Scripture song my mom had taught me (to the tune of row, row, row your boat so you can get the full picture) “What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee, Psa-a-a-alm 56:3“.  I wore that song out on those stairs.

You know, I’m not sure that I ever got less scared to go in the basement. I don’t think the song made the dark any less scary. The song/Scripture was a reminder that God is trustworthy even when the dark is scary.

Through basement avoidance, cancer wards, and other hard places in-between, I have learned that trusting God doesn’t automatically turn dark places into light places.

As Adam heads into his 5th surgery this morning, I find myself again in the juxtaposition of faith and fear. Some Christians might argue that there is no fear in faith, and maybe that’s true. It’s not true for me. I trust God and I am afraid.

Nearly every day in February, I read Psalm 34 and as the words became more and more familiar, different themes emerged. One of those themes was that there are 2 kinds of fear:

I sought the Lord, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the Lord heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them.

(Psalm 34:4-7)

I am afraid of cancer and surgical complications and scans and future unknowns. And I’m also afraid at times of a God whose ways are higher than mine, Who doesn’t always answer prayers the way I wish, Who isn’t a puppet manipulated by my directions, Who allows cancer and healing and death and life.

I trust God, and I fear God.

I have (what I think are) healthy fears and I have (what I know are) unhealthy fears. I entertain worst-case-scenarios and I battle anxiety and I fight panic – not just about, but definitely including, cancer.

For those unhealthy fears, I am seeking the LORD and waiting to one-day say, “I was delivered from all my fears.” I don’t imagine healing from anxiety will happen like a flashy disappearing magic act, instead, I think it’s happening in small moments, as I choose to trust in the dark places. I imagine healing from fear will feel something like an interaction I just read about in CS Lewis’ Prince Caspian. The interaction occurs between Aslan and Susan, when Susan was feeling afraid:

“You have listened to fears, Child,” said Aslan. “Come, let me breathe on you. Forget them. Are you brave again?”

“A little, Aslan,” said Susan.

Little by little I am being delivered from fears. Maybe deliverance from fear will turn into Holy fear? For now, deliverance looks like moments of trusting God’s goodness even in the dark, scary places. For now, deliverance from fears looks like God breathing bravery into my weary soul.

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On Lamenting and Rejoicing

I’ve been camped out in the Psalms during the last few months. The Psalms are gritty, honest, and confusing, which resonates well with my current headspace on this cancer journey. During this Psalms Campout, I keep circling back to the 34th chapter. Because I keep returning to this chapter, I decided to read it every day this month, and every few days, a line gets stuck in my head that inevitably gets me thinking.

I will extol the Lord at all times;
His praise will always be on my lips.
I will glory in the Lord;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the Lord with me;
let us exalt His name together.

Over the last few days, I’ve been turning the phrase “let the afflicted hear and rejoice” over and over in my head.

The concept of rejoicing in the midst of trials isn’t new to me cognitively. I was a Christian kid in the late 90’s who sang with a passion that I would trade my sorrows for the joy of the Lord. I’ve heard a lot of sermons throughout my decades as a Christ-follower about praising through pain. I’ve seen bumper stickers and Pinterest prints reminding me to “Choose Joy”.

But, as I’ve said before, cancer has tested all the varied theology I’ve been taught over the years, and this week, I’ve been asking myself “What does ‘rejoice’ really mean?” Which is probably getting at the deeper question: “Am I actually rejoicing in this [affliction] cancer?” Which then tugs at another question: “Can lamenting and rejoicing coexist?”

As I’ve mulled over the word ‘rejoice’ I recalled some verses I memorized as a child:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)

Rejoice always. His praise will always be on my lips. Always – in every moment? Always – in every situation? Always – in every season?

I’ve been very intentional over the last 4 months to be honest about the awful. From the beginning of Adam’s diagnosis, I resolved to express anger, sadness, and fear without sugarcoating my feelings, or wrapping them up with a pretty faith-bow, which is part of why I’ve loved reading the Psalms so much. David, the author of most of the Psalms, was called “a man after God’s heart”, and he wrote some really honest, angry, vengeful stuff. David curses and David praises. David laments and David rejoices.

Some days, even now, rejoicing comes easy. Some days, in spite of an awful diagnosis and terrifying unknown, I remember God’s character, promises, and goodness and my soul [rather inexplicably] rejoices.

But some days, I hardly have the energy to roll out of bed, let alone set my heart on rejoicing. Some days, I don’t have words to pray, I can’t stop crying, and I’m anxious about everything. Some days, I don’t think my soul has the capacity to rejoice.

This week, as I’ve continued to ruminate over this concept of the afflicted rejoicing, I came across a new idea from Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on Psalm 34: “It is well when the soul feels its own inability adequately to glorify the LORD, and therefore, stirs up others to the gracious work.”

Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt His name together.

So rejoicing is a communal effort?

As I think about this, another verse I’ve committed to memory comes to mind, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15)

Mourning and rejoicing are tribal efforts… I like that.

I was raised in a Christian era that taught a lot about individual faith. We were taught to have “individual quiet times” and to cultivate our “personal relationships with Jesus.” We didn’t learn a lot about communal faith. With each year that passes, I become increasingly aware of the importance of and the need for communal relationships with Jesus. These past few months have been further evidence to me of the importance of that.

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It’s probably no coincidence that often on my lowest days, I receive reminders of God’s faithfulness on the doorstep, or in the mailbox, or through a text. On those days, when I can’t seem to rejoice, community often reminds me of reasons to rejoice. And when I don’t have my own reasons to rejoice, community has reminded me that life, goodness, and growth are happening all around me. Our people are welcoming children into their lives, falling in love, finding healing, and creating beautiful things.

And some days, community just sits and cries with me, and acknowledges the general crappiness of things, and that’s ok, too. Even in the mist of our own pain, community has reminded me that death, sickness, and sadness are happening all around me. Our people are saying goodbye to loved ones, struggling in relationships, battling disease, and searching for purpose.

I’m thankful for the stories of others, that intersect my own, that give me reasons to rejoice, when my own storyline is sad. And I’m grateful for the stories of others, that intersect my own, that offer perspective that my sad plot twist isn’t the only sad plot twist. I’m glad to be part of a community – a great cloud of witnesses – who remind me of the faithfulness of God in every season. Lamenting and rejoicing can coexist. Perhaps they coexist best in community.

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One Word for 2015

Everything in my Type-A-Self is agitated that I’m writing a New Year Post on January 25.

Perfectionist Allison is highly embarrassed to submit something 24 days late but 2015 Allison gets a late pass because, well, cancer (I can play that card, right?).

I’ve been ruminating on this post for weeks and I have what I think are coherent thoughts, and so, I’m rebelling against my own anal retentive nature and publishing this anyway. Maybe 2016 Allison will be laid-back (but probably not).

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ow14_125x125_custom_125x125A few years ago, instead of making New Year’s Resolutions, I started picking one word that would define my year. During the year, I read books about the word, practice the word, and grow the word into my life rhythm. It’s a really beautiful, almost prophetic act that produces intentionality, reflection, and a even a new community to journey with throughout the year.

My word for 2014 was rest.  I shake my head in disbelief that that was the word I chose for 2014. I was way off. There wasn’t much rest in 2014 at all. In a lot of ways, 2014 was a year of frantic, but more than that, it was a year of horrible.

If I had even the slightest inclination that I had control over anything at the start of 2014, it was squashed, stomped, and flushed (to be sure it was really dead) by the close of the calendar. Sure sure, I can find some silver linings. (While we’re talking about silver linings, can I share some insight from my storm cloud? Let the person living the storm find their own silver lining and celebrate their discovery but don’t try to find someone else’s silver lining – it’s less powerful and far less helpful). I’ve gotten way off topic.

2014 had loads of good, actually. But the second half was so shocking and awful that if we took an average of good and bad and added it all up and then divided it out, the year would still come up HORRIBLE (yes, that’s an official mathematical calculation). Give me a few years of perspective and I’ll likely rename it but right now 2014 is still too fresh.

In the last few weeks of 2014, I began to process what felt like a failure of a year of rest – a failure out of my control – but a failure nonetheless, and I started thinking about 2015. And after some thinking, I determined that 2015 didn’t need a word. I decided I was too overwhelmed to think of a word that would shape a year that was already feeling too unpredictable to predict.

I decided to let it go, and come back to the drawing board in 2016.

And just as I resolved no word for 2015, I started hearing this one word, almost in surround-sound, coming from varied and unexpected sources. I heard this word in kickboxing, in sermons, in therapy, in books, and in conversations with friends. And I started thinking, maybe this year, my word found me.

This word has actually been surfacing for months because I’m having a very hard time with this word; physically, emotionally, and even spiritually

This word is simple, elemental even. But these days, basic sounds refreshing.

This word is breathe.

BreathDefinition

The act of breathing has been nearly impossible for months. I feel as though the unexpected of 2014 punched the wind right out of me and I still can’t seem to catch my breath.

But I need to and I want to.

So 2015’s message will be simple: Breathe, Allison.

I want to feel like my whole self can breathe all the way in and all the way out. Regardless of the hard and unknown of 2015, I want to be rooted, established, unmoved, and free.

But I’m going to start with simple, mindful, and rhythmic: breathe in and breathe out.

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