Category Archives: God’s faithfulness

The Family Tree.

My little brother Stephen graduates from college tomorrow morning, and so Kellan and I are hopping a Raleigh-bound flight and heading home for Christmas early! Stephen is only a year younger than I am, but already has approximately eleventy billion degrees, every single one of which I attribute to my graciously allowing him to complete my math homework for me when I had better things to do.

Like talk on the phone. Or eat Cheetos. Or really ANYTHING besides my math homework.

YOU’RE WELCOME, STEPHEN.

[Also, I expect a healthy cut of your salary for my efforts.]

My family has waited for Kellan and I to arrive to decorate their tree, and so I imagine that we’ll spend part of tomorrow unwrapping and carefully hanging boxes of ornaments. We’ve done the same thing for as long as I can remember—strains of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas lilt through the air and the lingering scent of molasses hangs heavy as Dad and the boys string cranberry beads and white lights. In keeping with tradition, the kids all fight over whose turn it is to hang which ornament. There’s the “house” ornament purchased the year that last minute plans allowed us to be unexpectedly, blissfully home for Christmas. There’s a polka dotted bunny rabbit snuck into my red stocking as a little girl, in honor of the stuffed bunny that I carried with me everywhere that I went. Ornaments are handmade and popsicle-sticked, shattered and mended back together after eager little hands dropped bulbs on hardwood floors and a patient Father sat and glued. Some are painfully ugly—treasures found by children and brought home to proudly hang on a tree while a Mama bit her tongue and smiled. Stephen and I have matching blue and pink angels that predate our two siblings, the two of which share custody of the single set of wings left between them. Truthfully, my pink angel hasn’t been great at sharing the wings over the past couple of years.

As Kellan and I decorated our tree the other night and unwrapped our little collection of red and silver ornaments one by one for the very first time, my mind wandered as I imagined our own children unwrapping those same ornaments one day. I’m a story-teller, and I will tell the stories over and over again—you see that gold Santa? That one’s from my Aunt Lynn. She gave us a whole box of ornaments right before our wedding. And the spinning ornament? We had those when I was a little girl! Your Grandpa always made sure that each one hung directly over a light. And that clay house ornament? Your Daddy and I got that the very first year that we were married. We barely had any Christmas decorations at all—we had to wrap bath towels around the base of our tree!

And then, carefully, we will unwrap one more.

Ornament

This was the last time that my brothers and sister and I got to decorate our tree all together. Your Uncle Ian would have just LOVED you.

And I will tell stories. Stories of fighting over ornaments and eating too many molasses cookies, stories of snow sledding in Ukraine and waking up at 3:00 AM on Christmas mornings. I’ll talk about curly hair and belting Broadway tunes while we washed dinner dishes, and I will roll my eyes as I tell them how the girls used to swoon over their Uncle. And every year, we will remember together that even in the face of death, we can still confidently, defiantly sing Joy to the World. We will remember that the world is broken and grief may threaten to overwhelm, but it never, never can because Jesus came and gave a weary world a reason to rejoice.

This year, and every year, I will miss my little brother.

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Filed under Christmas, Family, God's faithfulness, Grief, Hope, Ian

Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

DSC_0103Snowflakes fall, mistletoe hangs and the tinkling strains of a nearby radio gleefully herald the most wonderful time of the year.

…but what if it’s not? What if Christmas feels a lot less like magic, and a lot more like a frosty nose pressed to a glass window, peering inside as you wistfully bear witness to everybody else’s joy? What about those of us feel like we’re on the outside looking in this Christmas season?

I’ve always loved Christmas—every little bit of it. When I was a little girl, the sheer magic of anticipation used to drive me to wake my brothers up around 3:00 AM. Giggling, we would gather in my room in our flannel Christmas pajamas and sit on the floor with our wide eyes glued to my PollyPocket Cuckoo clock. Resolutely, we watched the blue second hand tick around and around and around until it at long last, it was finally time! We would burst into my parent’s bedroom and elatedly drag them towards the jubilant glow of our Christmas tree, where stacks of pre-sorted gifts [you’re welcome, family!] sat waiting. Dad would read us the Christmas story, and we would light every candle in the house because in my family, special occasions mean Yankee Candles.

This year, Christmas makes me ache because there’s not a thing about it that doesn’t remind me of Ian. As Bing Crosby dreams of a White Christmas and the Grinch’s small heart grows three sizes, my heart feels like bursting from missing my little brother. Everything conjures a flood of old memories, from picking out a tree and carefully hanging ornaments one by one [I always rearranged Ian’s when he wasn’t looking], to the teasing scent of gingersnaps lacing the frosty air.[Oh, he loved them!] Every carol, every wreath, every snowflake reminds me of a little brother who I will never wake up on Christmas morning again.

And so I sit with my nose pressed to the glass, watching happy families revel in the magic of the season as I ache and try to muddle through somehow. Maybe that’s your story this year, too. And as I sit, I think that I’ve never understood-never felt Christmas quite this deeply before. You see, I think Christmas belongs to broken people sitting on the outside. Oh, we aren’t the laughing ones, and you might not catch us at a cookie swap—but we’re the ones that most acutely understand how desperately we need good news of great joy.

My little brother dying of cancer is not the end of his story. It’s not the end of his story because 2,000 years ago, God sent His Son Jesus to live the life that Ian should have lived, and die the death that Ian should have died. Jesus took Ian’s place, so that February 27th in a ICU room would not be the end of Ian’s life—but rather the beginning of eternity spent at HOME with God in heaven. Ian has never really been home for Christmas until now.

I am deeply, profoundly, unspeakably thankful that this Christmas season, there is hope. A weary world can rejoice because in the midst of our pain, Emmanuel [God with us!] came, just as He’d promised He would!  I love how “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” puts it:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

If you are weary and aching and looking at Christmas from the outside in, you and I can still link arms and repeat the sounding joy because friend, there is a reason to. Jesus really came, and He’s really alive. Our broken stories do not end here—He is redeeming ALL things.

Tidings of comfort and joy, indeed.

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Filed under Christmas, God's faithfulness, Grief, Ian

The Wedding Video.

I apologize for the radio silence around here. Just be grateful that you’re not my husband, who is currently living on dreams and scrambled eggs.

I am straight-up exhausted.

In typical “us” fashion, we decided that we should buy a new house, join a new church AND start my new job allatthesametime. It all feels like LIFE, and after six months of death, I am grateful for every overflowing trashcan and stale bagel around these parts. I am deeply, deeply thankful for life.

Yesterday, I drove to Massachusetts. As happens on all of my long, quiet drives now, I missed Ian more and more with every winding, New England mile. I arrived home to a sweet surprise—our wedding video!

My heart jumped into my throat as I relived the frosty March day that Kellan and I looked hard into each other’s eyes and promised for better or for worse. I’ll say what took me months to admit out loud: it’s often hard for me to think about our wedding day. There was so much impossible pain and so much extravagant love woven into March 2nd, so inextricably intertwined that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. I had tightly held Ian’s hand as he slipped away just three days before, and suddenly, impossibly, I found myself clutching my Daddy’s arm in a white dress, waiting for the sanctuary doors to open. Breathtaking piano music swelled and I thought my heart might burst from the indescribable pain and beauty of it all.

I had to remind myself to breathe.

Just a week and a half before, my Dad and I had been sitting beside Ian’s bed in the ICU. Monitors flickered in the dark, vacillating wildly between hopeful and heartbreaking. Exhausted hearts rose and sank with oxygen levels and hand squeezes, and no one knew for certain whether Ian would live or die. We were afraid to hope, and still, could do nothing else.

My wedding day was fast approaching, though I did my best not to think or talk about it. Somehow, my stubborn sister heart still resolutely believed that the frail shadow of my brother laying on the hospital bed in front of me might still walk out of that hospital room and waltz with me on March 2nd. Truthfully, I was never able to wrap my heart around the idea that Ian might die. Oh, I could say the words, but they rang hollow every time.

Over the course of planning a wedding for six and a half months, my easy-going Father had never inserted his opinion or asked for anything at all. That day in the ICU, he looked at me and quietly asked me to find a videographer to capture the day, in case Ian lived to see it.

The wedding was days away. Numb and exhausted, I called my dear friend Amy, who spent countless hours in the ICU with us over the course of those weeks. Amy, Dad wants me to find a videographer. Do you know anyone?

Firmly, she told me not to worry about it, that she would figure it out.

Later that day, Amy texted and told me that my friend Josh [who happened to be the most talented videographer at our church] had agreed to film the wedding—and some friends [who remain anonymous to this day] were paying for it.

Hot tears slipped down my face in a sterile white hallway, as I sank to the floor outside the door to Ian’s room.

Ian will never watch this video, but I am indescribably grateful to have it. Its very existence reminds me that even in the midst of raw, searing pain, I do not walk alone. That I do not hurt alone, and that my family and I are loved. And it reminds me of how grateful I am that in the months that followed my walk down the aisle, Kellan walked with me. [Goodness, am I ever glad that I married that man!]

To Josh Sliffe, Amy, and the other friends that made capturing our wedding day possible: “thank you” could never be enough. You are a tangible expression of God’s goodness towards me.

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Filed under God's faithfulness, Grief, Ian, Marriage, My favorite people

It’s Not Just a Phone.

I started my new job with HOPE about a week and a half ago—and can I just tell you how thankful I am? Y’all, I am SO THANKFUL for early morning alarms and messy rooms and backed up laundry and stacks and stacks of reading. [Kellan is slightly less thankful. ;)] The thought of getting to be a real part of ending poverty makes my heart race, and we’re going to be talking about that a lot around here!

But today, I’m going to tell you about a phone. My phone, actually.

About a year ago now, Kellan flew to North Carolina to be with me as I watched my world begin to unravel. He’d moved to New York a week to the day after we’d gotten engaged, and had left his newly-minted bride-to-be beaming and elatedly scribbling wedding plans into a little black binder. He returned to bleary red eyes and quivering lips, sterile rooms and a very sick little brother.

Kellan felt helpless. The man who would hand me the moon if he could just figure out how to get his hands on it desperately wanted to fix it, and he couldn’t. He stood helplessly by as I crumbled, powerless to give me the only thing in the whole world that I wanted. He could not fix it.

My ancient cell phone was barely holding a charge anymore, which posed a herculean problem given that I needed my family to be able to reach me any time that I wasn’t at the hospital. Something in Kellan’s mind snapped, and the next afternoon he stuffed me into the car and drove me straight to the AT&T store. My protests fell on deaf ears as he put me on his cell phone plan and bought me my very first iPhone. He could not fix my little brother, but come hell or high water he was going to fix the phone.

I’ve never been so grateful for a piece of technology in my entire life. It was by far the most timely, practical gift that I’ve ever been given. I used the GPS to find the different hospitals that Ian was admitted to—I used it almost every single day. I snapped random pictures of Ian and I—pictures of coffee dates, wedding errands, and me curled up next to him in his hospital bed. And months later, one very last picture–a picture of my hand holding his. All of them, pictures that I never would have had if not for that fancy phone.

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I took videos. I took a video of his a cappella  group singing to him in the ICU. It was a video that I held up to his ear and played a thousand times—and I’m almost sure that one day I saw him try to smile. I took a video of him lying in his hospital bed as the steady rush of the ventilator helped him breathe in and out—and I would watch it over and over again at night right before I fell asleep, begging God to please let him still be breathing when I woke up. It was the phone I looked at in a frozen panic the second my eyes fluttered open each new morning, praying that all was calm. The phone that I held up to Ian’s ear and played music off of. The phone that lit up in a dark ICU room as thousands of texts and emails from praying friends and family and strangers poured in while I held Ian’s hand. I read him every single one.

When I started at HOPE, a kind employee graciously informed me that I would be sent a new phone, and transitioning to the company phone plan. My heart stopped as a thousand memories flooded my mind. I cringed, thinking about the archived pictures of the second to last coffee date that Ian took me on. He’d enthusiastically jumped behind the counter at his coffee shop to brew me a latte and impress me with his foam designs, and I’d laughed and snapped a picture.

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I thought of the day that Ian, Mom and I had been waiting in the hallway for yet another painful test. I’d breezed in with my wedding invitations, and in an effort to make Ian smile I’d spread all of my materials all over him and used him as a table. [Address stamps were delivered using his forehead as a level surface. :)] There was a picture of that, too.

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Then there was the picture on the yellow couch, of watching Emily’s ballet recital together, of cake-tasting entirely too many wedding cupcakes.

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I could save them all, of course—but inevitably my new phone would become cluttered with pictures of a life that had no choice but to carry on without Ian, and I hated that.

Grief means that it’s never just a phone.

The memories on my phone remind me that I am not home. That the world is broken, and that God’s heart shatters right along with ours as we stand and tearfully survey the wreckage. Last night, as I carefully saved every precious picture and video, I longed for heaven. I longed for no more broken hearts and broken lives, for the promise of no more tears to finally be ours. And until that day, if there’s one thing that I’d like my life to be hallmarked by, it’s fighting to redeem what has been broken. That is God’s heart, and I want it to be mine as well.

God is enough. He is enough for new phones and new pictures and even for a new life without my brother in it. Oh, it doesn’t feel like it in the midst of this broken Thursday morning—but I choose to cling to the undeniable truth of it.

He is enough for you, too.

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Filed under God's faithfulness, Grief, Hope, Ian

The Last Normal Day.

DSC_0045I remember October 2, 2012.

It was the very last cancer-free day that my family would ever know. Ian was a busy, curly-headed senior in college who had neither the time, nor the inclination to schedule a doctor’s visit even though he’d been feeling crummy. At my mother’s insistence, he’d finally gone—and we’d made hurried, unconcerned  plans for me to drop a meal off at his apartment later that week. [After a steady diet of tacos and coffee, we figured that whatever was wrong would easily be righted by some normal food and a good night’s sleep.] Just one year ago today was the last day before IVs and a shaved head, before a thousand cheerfully colored “Get Well” cards and a blue fleece superman blanket that followed us from hospital room to hospital room. It was the last day before numbers and hearts sank, and the cold nausea of grief made her permanent home in the pits of our stomachs. I couldn’t have known  as I fell asleep that night, that things would never be the same. That the very next morning, cancer would burst through the doors and we would ache forever.

One year later, my mind and heart still stubbornly refuse to believe that it actually happened. One year later, I still expect to wake up and find that it was all just the very worst dream that I’ve ever had. And one year later, God is still just as good as he was on the last normal day. God was good when I was newly engaged and excitedly shopping for wedding dresses with my Mom and sister. God was good on October 3rd, when a woman in a white coat said “cancer” to a room full of wide, disbelieving eyes. And God was good in the ICU, when hand squeezes grew weaker and finally disappeared, and I kissed my little brother’s cheek for the very last time. God is good even then—He is incapable of  being anything else.

Today, I choose to believe truth. I remember that love is not simply something that God does, but who He is. His relentless love for Ian and for me was settled at the cross, and the cross leaves no room for doubt. I will never match a fraction of the love that God has for my little brother.

Today and every day, I miss Ian.

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Filed under God's faithfulness, Grief, Ian

The Cancer Playlist.

photo (10)Home is so good for my heart. There are familiar faces—so many faces that I dearly miss in Albany. There are long coffees with best friends and hours spent laughing over nothing. There are runs with my brother, back-to-school shopping with my sister, breakfasts with my Dad, morning coffees with my Mom. A myriad of things for which I am deeply and profoundly grateful.

And then, there is Ian’s room. The shoes that he wore on their closet-door hanger, the striped scarf he tossed around his neck as the weather chilled, the brown hat that sat atop his curly hair. I find the brightly patterned superman blanket that followed him from hospital room to hospital room, pictures that he drew, playbills from shows that he performed in, the cologne that he wore every day after I urged him not to underestimate the power of smell. I find notes that he scribbled—meaningless scraps that I scour and carefully catalog as though religious organization might somehow bring him back. But nowhere do I find my little brother.

My Mom asks me what I would like to keep to remember him by, before she goes through his room. And suddenly I can’t breathe because there is nothing Ian enough to ease the sting.

I see Ian everywhere. I see him standing beside the grand piano where we used to sing, bounding down the stairs towards the kitchen, laughing in the red chair. On most days, I still expect him to burst through the front door and laughingly wake us all up.

Trying to understand, several days ago a sweet friend asked me if I simply felt an ache all the time since Ian died. No. It’s like there’s a weight that’s crushing down on me every second. I imagine that one day this will evolve into an ache, and that will be an improvement. 

Ian was diagnosed with cancer on October 3rd. Shortly thereafter, I compiled a list of songs that I entitled “The Cancer Playlist”, and gave everyone in my family a copy. At the time, I imagined that these would be the songs that would remind us of truth as we fought and beat cancer. I had no idea that in fact, they would be the songs we would play on repeat in the ICU, as Ian slipped away and all of us forgot how to breathe.The thing about grief, with all of its wrestlings and longings, is that sometimes the little energy that you have left must be directed towards the exhausting work of reminding yourself to breathe in and out all day long. Hope feels like nothing more than a morphine induced hallucination on the days when you barely remember how to get out of bed in the morning.  Grief is many things, but she is always a teacher—and one of her primary lessons is that a shattered heart can always break just a little bit more.

It is on those days, the days when opening a Bible or speaking to God feels like a veritable Mt. Everest of the soul, that I need truth the most. And that is where the gift of music has proven to be invaluable. Those days are less frequent now, but I still have them. I could not always stomach a Psalm in the ICU, but I could push play and allow the Lord to remind me through music that He is good simply because He is God, and not because He writes happily ever after endings to my stories. Music reminds me that I can get out of bed when it feels impossible, because there is new grace every single morning. Believing truth in the midst of grief is a fierce battle—and music helps me to combat the lies my heart wants to believe.

I know a number of you reading are in the midst of your own battle. In hopes that music might help you fight, too, here are some highlights from my Cancer Playlist—and a few of the lines that I cling to.

It Is Well With My Soul: Chris Rice

Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul.

Give Me Faith: Elevation Worship

Give me faith to trust what you say. That you’re good, and your love is great. I’m broken inside-I give you my life. I may be weak, but your spirit’s strong in me. My flesh may fail, but my God you never will.

The Search Is Over: Hank Murphy. [Hank is a good friend of mine—he wrote this song for his own brother. His music and his life point me to Jesus.]

The search is over, you are the answer. You are everything that satisfies, Jesus Christ.

No Sacrifice: Jason Upton [Ian and I used to sing this song together.]

To you, I give my life-not just the parts I want to. To you, I sacrifice these dreams that I hold on to. Your thoughts are higher than mine, your words are deeper than mine, your love is stronger than mine—this is no sacrifice, here’s my life.

Open Hands: Matt Papa [Matt is a friend of mine, and another musician that you need to check out!]

Free at last, I surrender all I am with open hands.

You are God Alone [Not a God]: Philips, Craig & Dean

Unchangable, unshakable, unstoppable, that’s what you are.

UnravelingShelly Moore [Shelly is a dear friend who got to spend some time with Ian while he was sick. While she’s never formally discipled me, the Lord has used her music to teach my heart to treasure Him and believe truth about Him. You need to check her out!]

I’ve heard You say ,wait for a better day. There is purpose even in the midst of this, and just as sure as the sun will rise, tomorrow I’ll get you through the night

Without Words: Shelly Moore

Hallelujah, you are worthy.

Jesus, I Come: Shelly Moore [This song became so meaningful to me that Kellan and I asked a dear friend to sing it at our wedding.]

Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come, Jesus I come. Into thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus I come to thee.

And finally, I would add this one:

I discovered this in the ICU waiting room, and it played on repeat.

May these songs help you fix your eyes on, and adore the God who is incapable of being anything but good to you.

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Filed under Family, God's faithfulness, Grief, Home, Ian, Uncategorized

Permission to Breathe.

This song is on repeat in my kitchen for a solid 48 hours.

I know, another song. But y’all, I just CAN’T STOP because it’s exactly how my heart feels! Nine thirty tonight is going to find me HOME IN NORTH CAROLINA. The weary world rejoices.

It was spur of the moment, really. My sweet husband got back from his business trip last Thursday, and everything was heaven until he announced that he’d be leaving again on Tuesday.

For over a week.

It was the combination of a business trip and a North Carolina beach vacation with his family and their posse of college friends—something that we’d decided I would stay back in NY for given my frequent flier status over the past few months. It had been the mature decision to make, but suddenly very the idea of putting my husband on a plane one more time, and then sitting at home by myself for a solid week AGAIN made my heart crumble.

There wasn’t even an ounce of bravery left in me to fake. In fact, the very best that I could muster was a watery half-smile that wasn’t fooling anybody. Y’all go buy stock in waterproof mascara NOW, because I am singlehandedly keeping the entire industry afloat. In totally unrelated news, Kellan could use a beer.

There are a lot of things about marriage you don’t expect. For instance, Kellan had no idea that both books and avocados would need to be separate line items in our monthly budget. [Am I the only one? Holler back.] Neither of us expected to get married the way that we did. Neither of us expected it to be this hard in Albany. Neither of us expected for me to still be sifting through jobs four months after our wedding–…finding little to nothing that I have the slightest interest in doing. [I would be steaming lattes at a local coffee shop by now if not for my husband urging me to be patient for once.] This might come as quite a shock, but I love people. You want to make my day? Drink a caramel latte with me for an hour or twelve. Alone time all day every day and sometimes for weeks on end? Not healthy for this girl. And as of Friday night, my heart was DONE. I could not stomach one more week of alone.

Cue my husband–the man who deeply, deeply feels so much of what I feel. Marriage means that you don’t hurt alone—something for which I am unspeakably grateful. Kellan walked through our front door with pink flowers happily hidden behind his back [be still my beating heart!], pulled me onto his lap and very calmly told me that I needed a break. We need to get you to North Carolina. 

I fought, because something in me feels like I need to channel Tim Gunn and just make it work. The problem is, living in New York feels very much like being asked to hold my breath indefinitely—and I’m afraid I’ve turned a rather startling shade of blue. Touching down in Raleigh feels like finally being given permission to exhale. Of course Kellan was right when he told me I was being bull-headed and prideful—it was time to breathe again. It was time to breathe in long drives without ever once glancing at my GPS. It was time to breathe in twelve hour coffees with my people, sunshine and bare feet, toes in the sand and country radio. It was so. past. time.

Serendipitously, my favorite time of year besides Christmas [Togetherfest, my Africa team’s annual beach reunion] is happening in just a couple of weeks, and given Kellan’s travel schedule and MY family’s upcoming beach vacation, we decided it made the most sense for me to stay in North Carolina until Togetherfest. Kellan will join me twice.

An hour after the decision was finalized, my schedule for the first few days before Kellan and I leave for the beach was already PACKED. Which made my heart sing because FRIENDS!

Breathe in, breathe out. I’m going home. :)

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Filed under First World Problems, God's faithfulness, Home, Hope, Marriage