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.

One Word for 2015

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.

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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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When New Years Don’t Always Bring Fresh Starts

“I bet you’re so ready for a new year,” they say with sweet sympathy.

“I’m sure you’re ready to put 2014 behind you,” they pronounce with pity.

“I have a feeling 2015 will be a better year,” they hypothesize with heart.

But I don’t quite know how to respond.

While I love the symbolism that a new year can bring, I don’t get that fresh start when the clock strikes midnight this December 31. On January 1, my husband will still have cancer, fears will still be present, days will still be hard, and unknowns will still be unknown.

And I know I’m not alone in the ‘less than fresh start to 2015 club’. This has been a hard and messy year for lots of us, hasn’t it?

This post is for all of us whose 2014’s will end in a minor key, full of dissonance, with no resolution yet composed. This one is for all of us whose pain from 2014 won’t get the memo to disappear before the ball drops. This post is for all of us who are starting 2015 with the lingering hard of 2014.

There’s no sugar coating it or silver lining for it, there’s no easier way to phrase it: This new year is going to be hard. So was last year (and for some of us, the year before that, and the one before that…) and I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we’re heading into a new year already weary, worn, and wary. But we are not defeated.

So you know what? I’m raising my polka-dotted mug of ginger tea (the calm for my anxious belly storm), I’m turning up my current favorite pump me up song, and I’m cheersing in spite of it all, nay, I’m cheersing because of it all. I’m cheersing to you fellow metaphorical mountain climbers because if there were ever worthy inspirations to toast: it’s “to the brave ones!” We are a great cloud of faithful witnesses to one another of how to walk hard roads by simply walking the hard roads: Imperfectly, sometimes begrudgingly, but ever faithfully.

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Cheers to the brave ones who dare to hope when the odds are not in their favor.

Cheers to the fighters who risk getting out of bed each morning though tired bones and weary minds plot against them.

Cheers to the tender-hearted who refuse to harden that bleeding heart – who keep feeling even though feeling hurts.

Cheers to the gritty ones, who keep being thrown punches and curve balls, and whose faith deepens and widens all the more.

Cheers to the ones who know that their callings are not on hold because of their current situation, but who trust that there is purpose in their pain.

Cheers to the ones who want nothing more than to see God do a “new thing” in their circumstances but while they wait, choose to see all the “new things” God is doing in their hearts in the process.

Cheers to the ones who believe that even if their heart and flesh give way, God is the strength of their heart and their portion.

Cheers to the ones who understand that testing produces a perseverance they would have never known or understood had there been no testing.

Cheers the ones who are convinced that nothing – not death or life, not angels or demons, nothing present or future, no height or depth – can separate them from the love of God.

Cheers to 2015 friends. Though it may not be clean, new, or fresh, it’s still a year to learn, trust, grow, and be brave – and I can toast to that.

Chemo-Sobby

Yesterday was Adam’s last day of chemotherapy.  Over the last ten weeks, Adam has had nearly 200 hours worth of chemo pumped into his body. It has been a grueling, tiring, challenging journey, and while his chapter with cancer isn’t done being written, yesterday was a turning point in the plot line.

The day seemed to creep by slower than most; for me, because of anticipation, and for Adam because of exhaustion. We watched them hook up the last bag of chemo to his IV pump and squeezed our hands together a little tighter.

I flashed back to a memory of the first day of chemo, when the first bag started dripping and the tears re-welled in my eyes. Last day tears are very different from first day tears. As the IV pump began beeping to let us know the chemo had all dripped out, an overwhelming sense of joy washed over us. We hugged the nurses who we have grown so fond of, we said goodbye to the receptionists who know us well by now, and we walked out of the chemo room.

And the sobs began.

Sobs inspired by how proud I am of my husband. Sobs of relief. Sobs because I’m tired.

We didn’t talk much on the way home. Adam is an internal processor and I wanted him to have space to take in the significance of the day. Quiet came easier for me because I was terrified that I would spill the beans about the secret waiting for him at home. I had kept this secret for a few weeks but the last few minutes felt unbearable.

Over the last few months in the chemo room, I had watched other patients announce it was their last day of treatment without much celebration or fanfare, and I decided that wouldn’t do for Adam. So I cooked up a little “Chemo Finish Line Party” at our house. I pitched the idea to a few friends and family and of course, because our people love us so well, they changed their work schedules and bus pickups to be there.

Adam and I turned onto our street and were met with an insanely joyous 15 minute party with dear ones lining our walkway to the streamer finish line. They had a medal, signs, sweatbands, and unlimited high fives. We toasted with gatorade and we hugged and then we broke up the party because chemo is exhausting.

A and E signs

Nat and Sarah Cheering

Gregg and Debbie Sign

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Crossing the Finish Line

To Adam

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Today I’m less chemo-sobby and more thankful for our kemosabes – for the amazing people that have been our faithful sidekicks; especially during this chapter. We are incredibly blessed by the people who are cheering us on, caring for us, and continuing to trek this with us all over the world, all over the US, and all over Nashville. We’re raising our leftover gatorade shot glasses to you this morning.

Thanks to Karen McGee and Brad Harris for the gift of pictures so we can remember this day for a long, long time.

Already and Not Yet (Thoughts on Advent, Hope, and Current Events)

Advent is a season of recognizing the already but not yet. It’s a season of tension, when we remember the significance of Jesus’ first coming, and we await His second coming when He will make all things new.

Randy Sly describes it like this, “Advent basically reminds us of the interval in which we are now living. We have the merits and graces of his first coming poured out among us, yet even now, we can think about his future coming; what it will be like when he comes again in the culmination of salvation history.”

This week, as I read scripture, prayed, and reflected, I thought about the hope I have as a follower of Jesus and the hope for our world because of Jesus. The hope Jesus brings has individual and societal implications.

I read scriptures this week in the Old Testament about a people who were oppressed, who experienced injustice, and who were longing for deliverance. I watched the news this week and saw a people who are oppressed, who have experienced injustice, and who are longing for deliverance.

And I sat in the tension of the already but not yet.

I read these words in Isaiah 9 and hope for these promises that have been fulfilled and are yet to be fulfilled.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.

And I lit a candle each night and I prayed to the Prince of Peace.

And I got mad and I prayed to the Mighty God.

And I grieved and I prayed to the Wonderful Counselor.

And I’m still praying to the Everlasting Father.

I’m praying for the families of Trevyon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the many other African American families whose personal tragedies didn’t make headlines. I’m praying for comfort that births hope.

I’m praying for the black boys in my nation, in my community, in the schools that I work who are fearful of authority, who have to fight to feel valued. I’m praying for the boys who get suspended and expelled far more frequently than their peers, who get lower grades, who are more likely to be arrested and jailed, who are part of systems that are set up to fail them. I’m praying for a hope and a future.

I’m praying for my friends who are raising black children who have to navigate the tricky waters of friendships, schools, and everyday interactions. I pray wisdom as they narrate society and life for their children. I’m praying for hope in the form of wisdom and grace.

I’m praying for those in positions of authority in America from our police to our judges to our teachers to our pastors. I’m praying for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. I’m praying that racism would be rooted out, stereotypes smashed, and equality would expand. I’m praying for systemic and personal change. I’m praying for hope that changes things.

And I’m praying for the Church; for my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m praying that we would be peacemakers; that we would join in the work of reconciliation; that we would seek to be one body united by hope. I pray that we, the Church, would see the Imago Dei, the image of God in one another.  I’m praying that we would fight for our fellow humans and not for our political agendas. I’m praying that we would mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep rather than fight with those who mourn and argue with those who weep. I’m praying that the Church would fulfill her mission and become an agent of hope.

I’m still searching for and sorting out words, concrete thoughts, and helpful actions. There’s work to be done on our knees, and there’s work to be done with our feet.

But while I sort that out, I’m sitting in the tension of hope that has come and hope that has yet to come and I’m humming this line on repeat from O Holy Night:

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

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The Waiting

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Advent is a season marked by waiting, expectation, and anticipation. It’s a season of hoping for light in the darkness, a season of longing for a day when the wrongs in this world will be made right, and a season dedicated to preparing for Jesus to come.

I couldn’t be more grateful that our cancer journey has crashed into advent because I need reminders now more than ever of the hope, joy, peace, and love that Jesus’ coming brings.

What beautiful timing that we get to focus our attention on a Savior that comes to rescue. What a lovely coincidence that we get to be reminded daily that Jesus became flesh and moved into our neighborhood, into our lives; bringing restoration and renewal.

This year, we’ve crafted an advent wreath and have decided to do daily readings from the lectionary to prepare us for Christmas. Each night, we’ll light a new candle as we read, pray, and listen.  Last night, we were reminded that “light dawns in darkness” (Ps 112:4) -that hope wins. What beautiful truth!

Today, I’ve been humming this verse from O Come O Come Emmanuel as I pray and hope:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

What are you doing this advent season? How are you preparing for Christmas?

 

Gratitude and Grace (A Thanksgiving Post)

photo (1) 2I think sometimes it’s easier to be thankful in the midst of hard seasons than it is during the good ones. Maybe that’s just me.  No, it’s not just me.  At the very least, it’s me and the Native Americans and Pilgrims.

Regardless, I find myself so very thankful this Thanksgiving.

Maybe it’s because I’m more aware of everything; cancer has a way of rubbing you raw and making you sensitive in both good and bad ways. Maybe it’s because I’m more attuned to the fragility of life; cancer has a way of snapping you into savoring every moment. Maybe it’s because I’m more needy than I’ve ever been; cancer has a way of making you feel unorganized, weak, and totally off.

But in the midst of this raw, fragile, off state, I have seen so much beauty. Over the last few months, I have been in awe at the love, generosity, creativity, and grace of the people in our lives. Had it not been for the love of others, I feel I might have fallen apart. I might have fallen apart beneath the crushing weight of a terrible diagnosis, the pressure of working in the midst of caring, and the heaviness of the unknown.

And yet…  (Oh how I’m grateful for an “and yet”) God’s grace has shown up over and over in so many ways; mostly through the love and sacrifice of His people. I feel held together by our community – our community of friends past and present, near and far.

Our people have taken over so that we can just be.

Our people have cleaned our house (or hired people to clean our house), gone shopping for us, cooked for us, taken care of our yard, covered our garden with blankets to protect from frost, and scaled our house to clean our gutters.

Our people have given us treats so that our “just being” can be fun.

Our people have given us sweet treats (literally all the chocolate and candy), date nights, tv shows to binge watch, wine drop offs (let’s be honest, that one’s just for me), books to read, and video games to play.

Our people have been incredibly generous so we can be present without worry.

Our people have treated us to gift cards, amazon wish list items, warm blankets, No-Shave-November fundraisers, and donations to medical bills.

Our people have been present with us so we don’t feel alone.

Our people have come to visit at the hospital and our house (some have driven long distances to do that), they have played games with us, they have texted us and sent us an overwhelming number of cards and post cards and messages.

Our people have prayed for us faithfully.

Our people have formed an army that spans time zones and continents; filling God’s ears with words we don’t have and asking prayers we aren’t brave enough to pray.

We’ve had to start a grace journal to document all of the blessings because we never want to forget God’s goodness to us during this season. And really, in the midst of hard, God has been so good to us. I’m thankful that during this time, God’s love for us has been incredibly evident.

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I read this line in Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts this week, and it resonated with this season for us. “Thanksgiving – giving thanks in everything prepares the way that God might show us His fullest salvation in Christ. The act of sacrificing thank offerings to God – even for the bread and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion – this prepares the way for God to show us His fullest salvation from bitter, angry, resentful lives and from all sin that estranges us from Him.”

I can’t think of a better preparation for celebrating advent; for preparing for Christ’s coming, than to be thankful and to understand how Christ saves us daily. Praying that whether you find yourself in a season of hard, or a season of relative ease, that you are in a season of thankfulness.