On the Pain of Growing Up and Glimpsing the Story in Your Struggle

There are moments in life when the proverbial crap hits the fan, when all the world seems out of control, and if you could just pause your life for an instant, slow it down, and watch from the outside, you might actually laugh… at least to keep from crying.

I picture an old college apartment, you know, that dirty “boy” (or girl) who seemed to never clean and just live in the filth. You step into their place with a rather clear mind of perspective and see the chaos swirling, junk splayed out before you in the form of a drab, crowded room: dirty dishes and uncleaned mountains of laundry amidst stacks of files and work that somehow must be done. Brown, stained carpet (didn’t it used to be a lighter shade?). Overturned tray tables. Sad furniture, grey and bleak filing cabinets, cheap shelves sagging in the corners of the room, the oppressive weight of unread papers and unchecked to-do lists, all that was meant to be completed. Such good intentions; disaster in motion. You have a remote in your hand as if in a dream, so you step back a moment and reduce the scene’s speed from real-time to a type of distant slow motion: white paper swirling majestically, floating like so many torn leaves, the fan turning in a dull, fluid whir, caked dust drifting from the tips of the fan blades. You lift the remote gently and punch a button, reducing the room from a pause to a stop. Bewildered, you freeze, furrow your brows, turn on your heel, and walk hastily from the room. You can’t bear to look it this mess any longer.

When was that last moment for you? That day, week, month, year? What was a turning point in your life? When did you have to open your eyes a little (or perhaps very much) when an experience forever changed you? And, when did you find the clarity to look back at that room, that chaos in your life, and see it for what it was – a chasm in your heart and an awful wide-eyed glimpse at your reality?

I posed these questions to my students in response to a short story that we read about losing a piece of our innocence and in turn gaining compassion. This was in October.

Soon after, at the advent of second quarter, we began reading To Kill a Mockingbird and the theme continued: Scout’s childlike, playful demeanor slowly chipped away into a hard look at the world and the evil therein. The stories kept connecting.

Two days ago, a mother and beloved fellow teacher shared a sliver of her own story in a safe space. She explained that recently, there was a day when she was home with her sons, and something terrible had happened. It was something challenging to process and something that could not change. It was out of their control, she and her husband’s. It affected their family in a deep way. And though they had protected and shielded their children from birth, helping each child carefully and age-appropriately deal with the world in a brave way when the time was right…on this day, they couldn’t do much. On this day, she watched her eldest son grow up, and in ways difficult to explain, it broke her heart. Because in certain ways, it had shattered his too.

Within the last few weeks, people I deeply love have shared stories with me on the phone, on restaurant benches, in my classroom, on my couch, and in face-to-face moments of unflinching truth. Words and tears have spilled forth. Prayers have been prayed. Hearts have been splayed out. The aching realization that “I’ve grown up a lot this year,” has been spoken. And for a while, for these last few weeks, I felt deeply. I over-felt. I was at a loss. I couldn’t get a grip. I was stuck in the pain and the horror of it all, of these people who I loved so fiercely and felt connected to who were hurting. It was a type of vicarious bleeding, a slow overdrawn pull that eventually left me dizzy and disoriented. It was glimpsing that torrid room and not having the remote to stop it. Instead, I spun out. Last Saturday was the worst.

But a few days this week have allowed me perspective and a “stepping back.” I’ve been able to slow down my mind and press pause on my remote. I’ve let the days drift past me and just been “in” them but not affected too deeply by them. I’ve been able to see clearly some of the chaos and the ensuing pain. Some of the brokenness. And, I’ve discovered that whether it is criticism or cancer, anxiety or exhaustion, loneliness or longing, there is some relief to be had, some hope to be gained, some truth to be held.

In a separate post (perhaps a part two), I will share some poetry from my students from that October prompt, some eloquent words of wisdom (with their names and stories protected, of course). For now, though, I’m thinking of a different story – the novel in which we just read the final page. Because, sometimes, we really need to bypass our present and fast forward to an ending we know so that we can hang on to what’s in store for our future. And here’s an ending that I know.

By the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout has lost much of her innocence. That can’t change. It still feels awful.

She has wrestled through a difficult trial (literally), attempting to grapple with the idea that a man, though having seemingly done nothing wrong, would have to suffer so much for the sins of others. She has seen ugly parts of the world filled with pain and violence and loss, and yet she also has seen beauty in which shadows stepped out of the darkness to reveal truth behind them, and heroism and protection emerges where she least expects it. The world still feels confusing. She still is filled with questions. The understanding is incomplete and too lofty for her to reach. The pain is still real, and it won’t be rationalized away or sugar-coated. It would be unfair and perhaps even cruel to try to paint it any differently than what it is. It must be dealt with. But perhaps, she can take a break from it.

So, her father reads her a story.

The final scene that we read is a tender one. Scout is in her father’s arms, nestled up, warm and safe. Despite all of the wonderings still on her mind, he quiets her with love. No matter what she has gone through, she or her loved ones have endured to this point. No matter what was broken, it will mend some. No matter how much was lost, more might still be gained. We end on hope. She is still a child, held tightly in the arms of another, and her father will be there with her and with her brother, Jem, when they wake up. Tomorrow will be a new day. And I find great hope in that ending.

Though, some people hate it. Some people want to know the end of the story. What happened to Boo? To Dill? To Jem? How does Scout grow up? What is the final page of the final book of a larger series? Shouldn’t there be a sequel? Why can’t I know what happens, now?

At times, I feel like that too. But, for now, I’m content with that ending. Because when a chapter or a book ends in uncertainty, there’s a real moment of ownership and opportunity that can be bred out of it. There is a sense in which we decide the ending. We decide the fate. We have the choice, as Rafiki shares in Lion King, “to either run from it… or learn from it.” And, that wild, blue-butted baboon is right when he smacks Simba over the head with his wisdom stick and helps Simba realize that it’s not true that “it doesn’t matter” because “it’s in the past” and “yes, the past can hurt…” but what we get to do is pull ourselves out of the past and into the present with a hopeful glimpse into the future. We get to turn what was an awful wide-eyed glimpse into our circumstances into an awe-filled, “awe-ful” (if you will) picture of our reality. That hurt sucks. That growing up is hard. That to peer unflinchingly into the truth of a situation is more than we can bear at times. We’re at a loss for words or feelings or actions to surmount that. But, we do get to decide our future. We do get to keep fighting the battle, one day at a time, and we can emerge as conquerors on the other side of it. That is possible.

So, what was it, your last moment when you felt you hit a turning point? When did you know that you had to grow up and that you had lost some of your innocence? And what will you do about it? That is really the question at this point. What is your choice?

For, in a real, true, empowering way, the rest of the story is quite literally up to you.

You get to decide. Where will you go from here?

And, please, let me know, if you choose.

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Hannah, you’re the queen…

I believe in the power of words, of names.

Lately, in my class, we have been looking into name meanings – What does your name mean, and what does it mean in your life? How is God redeeming you through your calling?

I have been called and given many names in my life, as have you, I’m sure. My family is particularly fond of nicknames, so I have many. Allow me to expand…

Laur, from my brother

Loo-lum-lore-lee-la, peanut – my dad

Lolly, Lollygirl, Lollybird / Little Lollybird, Mosquito, Marie, Lamb Chop –> Chop –> Choop –> Chooper

The names go on and on.

And then there was Hannah.

When I met Brian’s family, I also met a beautiful little one with long, dark “shag dog” hair, as the boys called it – they liked it long and sweeping across her face. She met me and swiftly tried to keep me at the house. We bonded instantly. With her small, warm hand, she took mine and at the age of two, called me Hannah.

Her parents would say, “Say Lauren,” and she would say, “Hannah!” “Say, La-la-la-la-Lauren,” and she would respond, “La-la-la-la-Hannah!”

We could not figure it out. And for about three glorious years, she called me Hannah. It was a sad day when this sweet girl learned my “real” name…

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I’ve been thinking about that name Hannah. I’ve written a tiny bit about it before, of how it means favor and grace, and since I was given it by a member of my husband’s family, I realize what favor and grace I was given by joining their family, by combining our families. Believe me, our marriage has brought blessings to both sides of the aisle.

And yet, I don’t think that’s all of it. That’s not the end of her story, or mine.

If you know more about the story of Hannah, don’t spoil it for me. God is revealing that to me in his timing, how that name fits me and how it seemingly doesn’t. However, God is sovereign, and out of the mouth of babes… God speaks clearly as well.

I am so thankful for what he says about me in His word and in His names for me. I look at my nicknames from family and see favor and grace, love abounding, care and sweetness. I see familiarity and a future.

Today, I was sitting alone in my classroom grading papers. I felt weary, and I said, “God, would you keep speaking to me? Would you show me your grace and help me as I work?” I turned on an internet radio station, and one of the first songs that played was this one, called “Hannah” by Ray Lamontagne. I won’t explain every lyric and how it fits so perfectly with me, this song about falling in love and being captivated by beauty (Thank you God – and Brian – for loving me so well!), but I will give a few sneak peeks…

For example, how I sobbed this morning and “cried so loud” when God comforted me in my quiet time and prayer,

how I would put down my idols and my comforts if He would just be kind to me, and He is,

how I’m celebrating my emptiness as God fills me up,

how I came down from those Ozark Hills where I used to go to Sixth Grade Camp,

and instead,

I am roaming the streets of Westminster, with music and a Bible,

and praising God for his goodness and flourishing,

the right fit for now,

how my name is Lauren, “crowned with the Laurel,”

flowered dresses that I use to clear the way.

God lets me climb big trees as Hannah Lee.

God is so good. So good. Tonight, I am thankful and full.

My cup overflows, again and again and again.

“Come to me, Hannah. Hannah, won’t you come on to me?”

Yes, God, yes, God, yes…

Every day,

I will fall down at your feet,

For oh, God, you are the King of this street.

I lost all of my vanity
When I peered into the pool
I lost all of my innocence
When I fell in love with you

I never knew a man fall so far
Until’ I landed here
Where all of my wounds that turn into gold
When I kissed your hair

Come to me Hannah
Hannah won’t you to come on to me?
And I’ll lay down this bottle of wine
If you’ll just be kind to me

Ask her why she cries so loud?
She will not say a word
Eyes like ice and hands that shake
She takes what she deserves

To celebrate her emptiness
In a cold and lonely room
Sweep the floor with your long flowered dress
If you cannot find a broom

Come to me Hannah
Hannah won’t you come on to me?
And I’ll lay down this bottle of wine
If you’ll just be kind to me

She’s got hair that flows right down
Right down to the backs of her knees
Her papa he was a preachin’ man
And the Lord is hard to please

So she comes down from the Ozark hills
To these very streets to roam
With a banjo and a Bible
And a fine tooth comb

Come to me Hannah
Hannah won’t you come on to me?
And I’ll lay down this bottle of wine
If you’ll just be kind to me

I’d walk one mile on just broken glass
To fall down at your feet
Oh Hannah you’re the queen of the street

I climb the tree with my Hannah Lee
My intentions they were pure
Oh the breeze did whip and I lost my grip
I tumbled towards the earth

Where you never would guess who it was that stood below
His name I would never tell
But his eyes were clear and his arms were strong
And caught me as I fell

Now come to me Hannah
Hannah won’t you come on to me?
And I’ll lay down this bottle of wine
If you’d just be kind to me

I’d walk one mile on just broken glass
To fall down at your feet
Hannah you’re the queen of the street

Read more: Ray LaMontagne – Hannah Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Context is King, and when Life is Bad to the Bone

So, you might think I’m crazy.

That’s fine.

I’ve been posting up a storm lately on Instagram and Facebook and my blog, proclaiming God’s power in my life and the fact that I’m going to stomp all over that coward, Satan, with the gift of words that Christ gave me. You can think I’m crazy if you want to, but if you do, you’re blind.

Satan loves shame. He loves darkness. He loves to hide, and one of his favorite tricks is for us to turn on each other because we can’t see what others can.

Satan is REAL. God is REAL, and we have power and access and weapons at our disposal in the Word and in the Holy Spirit and the body of believers. Yes? Can I get an amen?

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Yesterday, the sky on Delmar at night.

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Yesterday, my story played in chapel at Westminster Christian Academy, to about 1,000 kids and staff. I was nervous, and yet I saw how God put that together and how holy hands had formed that video from 40 minutes of my verbose speech wittled down to 5 minutes of clear, concise good words. He is faithful.

The mantra, the drumbeat, the anthem of that video was this: What Satan means for evil, God works for good. ALWAYS. Genesis 50:20. (See my video here.)

While that video played, my husband was T-boned on Delmar Street. [side note – what is going on on Delmar lately? Injured deer running the streets? Crazy?!]

My husband is perfectly great. He is safe. The other car smashed in his passenger side (praise the LORD!), and he is safe. My husband even used his gift of wisdom and words to encourage me on the phone when he called me during my planning period, and for ONCE, I had my phone with me all day… I answered right away. Praise the LORD! Brian encouraged me and then continued to care for me all day with his words and actions. Wait… weren’t you the one that was hit today, hard? It’s like the one time when we were dating, and I smacked him in the face with the Wii remote because I wanted SO badly to get that backhand tennis shot, and even though I gave him a black eye, when I started crying because I felt so badly, he ended up comforting me! What the heck?!? Life is crazy.

You might think I’m crazy, and again, that’s FINE. Think all you want. But while you’re thinking over there, I’m going to be face down praying, y’all. Because Satan is REAL, and God is REAL, and we have power and access and weapons to wield against a cowardly fallen angel who continues to strike out at me and my family.

Would you pray for a hedge of protection over the Rieckman and Simpson family today? Would you cover us in prayer?

I had the image today as I was praying, face down in couch, of a forcefield around my family. I prayed for each individual person, one by one, adults and babies alike. Pets alike! I prayed for protection to cover them. I prayed for Satan to FLEE, and I commanded it in the Lord’s name. I prayed for God to help me because I feel so bold and yet I am so, so scared. Because when you fight for God’s promises and you speak words of truth that the God of the universe gave you, crazy things happen. And Satan loves to fight back.

But here’s the thing. I have weapons. I have YOU. I have prayer warriors, and the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” James 5:17-18

Prayer is powerful. Let’s harness it.

Pray for:

– a hedge of protection
– eyes to see the very clear spiritual battle going on
– binding us together
– staying alert
– getting in the WORD and being in constant prayer
– telling Satan to FLEE
Here’s the other thing: I know I’m not the only one. I’m hearing so many stories right now of other people’s storms. I mean, geez, just look out the window this morning in St. Louis. Today woke us up with a crack of lightning and deep rumbling in the earth. Big things are happening. And God is sovereign over every bit of it. Praise the King!
Life might be striking out at you, bad to the bone, but Our King is good through and through. He might not be safe, but LORD, He is GOOD! Can I get an amen?
PREACH. PRAISE. PRAY. What Satan meant for evil, God works for good. ALWAYS.
May that be our anthem, our drumbeat, our place of praise, always.
Time to kick start this day and kick Satan in the [err… pants.].

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Always

Guns are blazing, but my aim is true.
You strike down, but HE builds up.
You try to fight,
You claw,
Lash out.
Coward.

Don’t you know? Haven’t you learned?
The fight may wage on, but the battle is won.
You can strike at me,
Keep the hits coming,
But the power that loads these guns,
The pistol shots I can fire,
The perfect aim I can wield –
It’s sharper
And has more power;
He comes in like a wrecking ball.

Satan, sit down.
BACK. DOWN.
I command it,
And you flee.

Don’t you believe?

God has more grace.

So let go. Jump in.
What are you waiting for?
It’s alright,
Because there’s beauty in the breakdown.

What [you] meant for evil, God works for good.

Always.

Genesis 50:20

On Fight and Flight [or Beauty in the Breakdown]

I’ll cut right to the chase. This morning, I burst into tears in my classroom. In front of my kids. At 7:56am. One minute after class started.

Allow me to give some context and explain.  

Last weekend – beautiful, redemptive conversations and hugs, LOVE abounding and refreshing, best friends

Monday – unpreparedness, OVERexposure, emotional wreckage (in private)

Tuesday – good and busy

Wednesday – fine and fun and fast

Thursday – The phrase “The day got away from me” is not accurate enough. The day flew by me and around me. It FLEW, and I was building the plane while flying it. Work from 7am-11:30pm without ceasing.

Friday – Wake up. GO. GO. Go. go. gooo… CRASH. Insert Gina, amazing teacher partner, who gave me a breather and took over my class while I cried in the empty hallway and in her room, and I prayed.

It’s wild to me to think about how we fight and flee. When we do. If we do. It’s also amazing to me to see how God REDEEMS, because boy, does he ever… ALWAYS. Here are five things I noticed after my 3rd hour when I got a breather.

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Fable & Lore necklace, made here in St Louis. The pattern speaks to me – partnership, gold, shining, waves, dips, doves, peace.

Camo “battle” shoes – I seem to always wear these when I have a spiritual battle ahead. I wore them to the store two summers ago when we heard that Grandpa Alex was in the hospital. I wore them to Chick-Fil-A that same week when I mightily ate some chicken and made my father-in-law belly laugh to lift some grief.

“Hunger Games” arrow rings with chain from Standard Style in KC. I feel powerful, alive, and GUIDED when I wear this. I could stab the devil with this and inflict some damage as well.

Ring wrapped in thread from local store in LA. Handmade. It speaks to me of binding, protecting, adorning, and unraveling over time, the need for redemption.

Ebony heart earrings from the annual family Hen Party. I wore my heart on the outside today; edged in gold and passed down to me from family, it was.

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I’m a lover of jewelry. I love to make a statement and decorate myself in things that make me feel bold and strong and unique.

After my 3rd hour when I got a breather and walked down that same empty hallway to get some tea, I saw adornment. I saw adornment and purpose and reasons to praise.

God loves to adorn me as well… and how odd it is (and INCREDIBLE) that it seems subconsciously (or miraculously) God guides me to dress myself in things that give me power and strength on days that I REALLY will need it.

Before first hour, I felt the stress building. I rushed. I tried to help kids who desperately wanted my attention. I did not get my plans cemented. I did not get the objectives or agenda written on the board. I did not play music as they entered like I normally do. I was not relaxed and full of peace, and I know (because God spoke to me yesterday and this morning about it, that peacemakers who sow in peace build fields of righteousness (James 3:18). Yet, I was not full of peace. I was full of exhaustion and anxiety and the need for control, and yet I was spinning out of it. I was full of selfish ambition (James 3). I would strive and strive, do and do, work and work, and I (key word: I) would get it all done and do it all well. Friends who know me, do you see a pattern?! Oh my good GOD, what you must be thinking when you look at me and see me repeating my same sins over and and over again, stubbornly fleeing from you and relying on my own flawed ability to perform. God, what must you think…?

I know what you must think, because when I returned from getting tea, I opened my Bible and flipped to the next passage in James and read this:

James 4: What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

And l listened to this: “Healing” by Ben and Noelle

And suddenly, it all fell together. I nodded and laughed and smiled and prayed, and then I blogged. Because God knows what he’s doing. Because there’s beauty in the breakdown. Because when I felt the emotion rising, I asked a kid to pray for me, smack-dab at the start of the class, and he did. And when I turned around to turn on the projector RIGHT after that, I was locked out of the system because of the storms and power loss yesterday, and that’s when I lost it. The tears started flowing, and I squeaked out, “It’s been a really hard day already, and someone needs to go get Mrs. Bush.” And they did. And she did what she did, and I did what I did.

And the kids were gracious, and they all said, “Don’t worry, Mrs. Simpson. We’ve all felt that way. And we get it, and you’re not the first teacher who we’ve seen cry.” And class was better.

And 2nd hour, class was better. And by third hour, when the technology was breaking down again, the video projects the kids had prepared were not uploading and were not playing and were not using sound, and the computer kicked me out of Power Point and kids were getting flustered, I stopped class and said, “Listen.”

“Listen, Satan is the worst. And you might think it’s funny, and it kind of is, but there is some REAL, supernatural, technological difficulty going on here. There is some real spiritual battle happening in my heart and in this classroom today, and Satan’s not going to win. God is bigger and stronger and better. Amen?” The kids laughed and clapped, and I said, “Let’s be honest. That might sound weird to you, but there is a reality to the fact that Satan doesn’t want us to flourish. And he’s a butt-hole. I HATE him. Don’t you?!” [insert shocked student laughter] “I absolutely hate him, and I believe that when you call upon the name of the Lord and you tell Satan to flee, he has to. He has to flee, because God is greater, and Satan sucks. Yes?” And they all echoed yes. And we went on with our class, and we played some of the videos and solved some of the technical difficulties, and we ended class in prayer, going on with our day.

Guys, Satan is real. God is REAL. And we have POWER and ACCESS and PEACE in the Holy Spirit. God is willing and able to redeem situations and overcome evil when we ask and even sometimes when we don’t. But He wants us to ask and ask boldly. And he will fight with us as we tell Satan to flee. And he will. And now, here I am, using TECHNOLOGY that has failed me all day to share this message with you. God is a restorer and a redeemer. God is a warrior and a comforter. God is a HEALER.

I am fighting against Satan’s temptation to despair today, and I’m telling Satan to flee. Will you join me in the fight? Will you allow God to speak to you and heal you and do powerful things in your life? Will you allow the Holy Spirit to enter and move in power?

Amen. May it be so.

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And I Will Draw Near to You

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College is such a formative time. I developed relationships with dear friends, met my gift of a husband, discovered my career path, and felt the Lord alter my worldview through my experiences and his Word. And, in the midst of it, I encountered Jesus.

If you didn’t read my last post, I’m on a journey of thinking through God’s intentional hand during my youth and beyond. It’s fun and challenging and introspective… just my thing… and it will be used at my new work, which is even more wonderful.

After my sixth grade summer when I “found” Jesus, I discovered I had many questions. How do you do this alone? Isn’t that what happens: now I retreat to my bedroom with my dusty Bible, and I read? What changes? What’s this whole Christian thing look like, and how do I navigate it? What if I don’t feel it anymore, that spiritual high? What now?

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I was so very thankful to be surrounded with girls who also were seeking to know the Lord and who liked to have a clean good time. We had a blast and kept each other out of trouble. From 6th-12th grade, these girls grounded me and grew with me, and we discovered more and more who we were. Believe me, we made plenty of mistakes too. We were lazy and self-focused; we were gluttonous and jealous; we were fearful and petty at times. Yet, the Lord was faithful; He always is.

In the summer before my 8th grade year, from a hard wooden pew in an old, well-loved chapel, I rededicated my life to Christ, a new surge in my faith. After that summer, I spent at least two weeks every June or July at that same incredible place called New Life Ranch.

And it was.

New and full of life…and every year, I found new spring in my step and song in my heart. I cried out to the Lord, sang silly songs, prayed fervently, danced often, and learned how to serve like Nehemiah, lead like Moses and David and Paul, help, claim, dig deep, and be thankful. This camp is where I seemed to find myself every year: the rocks were my thinking place, the West 40 my place of praise, and the cabins where I was privileged enough to grow with dear friends and eventually minister to young girls. My safe place, my inspiration…

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My sophomore year of college was particularly transformative for me. Whether I knew the labels or not, I was wrestling through the imaginary sacred and secular divide. There were voices in my life telling me that some of the things I loved were ungodly – punk and hip hop music, going dancing, reading certain books and spending time with certain people… and though I had a history of trusting some of these voices, I felt torn. I understood the idea that spending more time with God and his words meant spiritual growth for me, and yet I couldn’t shake the height and happiness of my soul after laughing with my sorority sisters at a party, the way that my heart broke as I heard musicians crying out and declaring their emptiness, the beauty in the brokenness, the pull I felt toward it. I desired to know more of the world, to find out what was so “bad” and how to feel more alive, to throw myself into a feeling and a rhythm and story… to be free.

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Throughout that year, a lot changed for me and in me – too much to explain in this brief post – but by May, I went back to New Life Ranch with a host of punk, rock, and indie CDs, a strength and deeper understanding of who I was, an even deeper love for my wonderful and spunky sisters, and a certainty of God’s provision and call on my life, and He started speaking to me about baptism. When I say speaking, know that I don’t mean audible words in my ear from the Lord, but I do mean that he spoke through others and through his Word. I kept reading and hearing and seeing baptisms, and I started digging into Scripture to see what it was all about, and what resulted was that He affirmed me in my search. I prayed and felt the assurance both inwardly from the Holy Spirit and outwardly from family and friends that it was time, and it turned out, about seven others were ready too. So, we all went down to the river on a Sunday.

A few of my dearest friends and a host of New Life Ranch staff stood around me as we went one by one and explained why we felt called to baptism that day. I tearfully choked through my convictions – that God had been tugging on my heart, that I had a renewed love for Him, and that I knew that although I was already firmly His, it was time to show it outwardly and answer the call, to consecrate my life for Him.

When it came to be my turn, I waded into the creek that I so dearly loved, shaded by a few beautifully arching trees overhead, and Scott Shaw placed one hand against my back and the other clasped over my wrists. I let go and fell backward, held firmly by Scott’s hands and the support a few of my dearest friends. The cool water rushed around my back and over my face as my body submerged, and seemingly just as quickly, the direction of force reversed as I was pulled back up, gasping for New Life air. Whoops and cheers and praise filled the skies, and after a few hugs and possibly the biggest ear-to-ear smile of my life, I stepped aside for the next staffer’s life-altering moment.

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I encountered Jesus that day through my community and my commitment. I drew near to Him over the years, and I felt Him drawing still nearer and nearer to me. I pulled the Lord close like a cloak of protection and a redeeming liberator, and He became real for me, intertwined with my heart, and I couldn’t help but to keep drawing nearer, the Lord growing dearer. His love for me was relentless, His call on my life impossible to be ignored. Still to this day, that was a powerful moment in my life that helps to define who I am as a beloved daughter and believer. My words are too finite to express what happened in my soul that day, but I knew that it was a turning point and a right one.

During that time in my life, I clung closely to a few verses, but Psalm 139, specifically the last two verses (23-24) were on my heart. I was ready to be led, and my rebellious heart was relenting and reforming. With my Lord nearer and my vision clearer, I walked out of the water and into the days ahead, and the Lord encouraged me and hemmed me in. He knew me full well and loved me despite, seeing me clean and robed in righteousness that I did not deserve. And that kind of love is worth dying for so that you might be given new life.

And I was.

New and full of life and hope.

Psalm 139

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

1You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

2You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

3You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

4Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

5You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain.

7Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

8If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,”

12even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

13For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

15My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

17How precious to me are your thoughts,a God!

How vast is the sum of them!

18Were I to count them,

they would outnumber the grains of sand—

when I awake, I am still with you.

[…]

23Search me, God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

24See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

From Stodgy to Saved

Recently at work, I was asked, “When did you encounter Jesus?” Along with our theme for this year’s chapel at WCA, I will apparently be one of many teachers and students who will be interviewed on camera in order to play a short clip of our story at chapel for the kids. And if you know me at all, you know I’ve got some reflecting and word-smithing to do on my own before I’m ready to speak in front of a crowd, or in this case on camera (eek!). Attempting to alleviate some awkwardness, I’ll lay my thoughts down here as part one of three. Apologies to friends whom I am about to embarrass.

The first time I recall encountering Jesus was the summer before sixth grade. My incredible friend Caroline (over at In Due Time) invited me to her youth group. I had most likely been complaining to her about my church, which I now realize was fairly spiritually dead. We said words, we sang hymns, and we went through the motions, but there was little to no faith-life there, at least for me. My brother and I had both been falling asleep in church, and our wonderful mother began to fear that we would lose our interest in faith altogether. So, she said hesitantly said yes. I don’t remember much, but I do remember a flurry of activity – the painted walls of KYF, the hum of energy, the uproarious laughs, and the seeming lack of adults. We were in a room filled with kids, and there seemed only to be a few adults in the room, and they weren’t signaling for anyone to sit down or shut up; the adults were mingling with and among the kids, laughing, talking, snacking… What? This was not my definition of youth gatherings at church. Where were the dingy tables, dull lights, worksheets, dusty books, empty hallways? And goodness, the boys in the room were reallllly cute. I liked this place.

IMG_0809 IMG_0826 After an absurd game of lining up and passing bananas over our heads with our feet (our pre-pubescent posteriors arching over our heads), some type of talk began to which I didn’t pay much attention, and then eventually, more talking, laughing, flirting, goofing off… I came home and said that I loved it.

Caroline continued to invite me to church, and as we spent increasing frequency of time together, that relationship and others deepened into great friendships. Erika, Jenny, Raelyn… I was surrounded by beautiful, silly, and yearning souls like mine who were already growing into incredible Godly women. We talked, and laughed, flirted and goofed off, decorated Bible covers, taped in book tabs (probably from Mardel’s), and learned to pray. Still, I came for the fun, the games, the boys. I came for Caroline and Erika and Jenny and Raelyn and Ashley. I came for myself.

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IMG_0824Then, one day, I sat on the KYF carpet in the back of the youth room, cross-legged and eyes wandering, observing and taking in the room, and I heard a woman’s voice grow ever stronger in my ears. Susan Grapegater, who happened to live across the street from Caroline with Mr. Grapengater and their two kids, from whose yard we had retrieved many a poorly aimed soccer ball, in whose house we had youth meals and Superbowls, whose incredibly creepy Halloween haunted house drew in neighbor kid after neighbor kid every year, spoke. She spoke with love and fervor and kindness. I don’t remember the words, but I do remember the feeling. I remember her smile, her knowing glance that seemed to focus on me out of all sixty-some kids in the room. I remember a click, a shift in my heart, an openness, a willingness to lend an ear. I stared at the rough carpet speckled in color, and I felt a nudge, a fearful and wonderful call. She asked us to bow our heads and pray with her. I didn’t know how to respond, but I bowed my head, and I listened. And that evening, after going home in bewilderment, I realized what that call was, and stumbling over the words I had heard again and again and again at KYF that summer, I bowed my head in my bedroom and I asked the Lord to come into my heart and save me. And he did. I encountered Jesus. And when I opened my eyes, it seemed as if everything and nothing had changed all at the same time. I resolved to tell Caroline, but beyond that, I looked around my room at my walls and the life that had been built around me and felt a sense of awe and uncertainty. I realized suddenly that someone else was in control, a partnership of sorts. It was God and me now… and I thought, “What now?”

When the Flames Consume Us

I’ve always loved a good fire. There’s something mesmerizing about the flames, white-hot spark igniting yellow-orange upward waves of heat… black char glowing red as the embers smolder. It’s captivating, warm, inviting… hypnotic… dangerous.

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When I was just a little Taz, I sat at this campfire with my family and tried to judge the right distance from the fire. Naturally, my feet propped onto the stones’ edge. After the fire and cacophony of voices died and the Hershey’s wrappers lay sticky and discarded on the ground, I rose, and stumbled over my feet. No matter how I tried to walk, my feet were not cooperating, and I kept lurching forward as if I were walking on small forest moguls placed by some fiend (my brother?!). Instead, I discovered, when I sat and lifted my feet, that the soles of my shoes had melted and re-formed in lumps and mountainous hills, cavernous valleys, and oddly misshapen curvatures. I had gotten a little too close to the heat.

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I always seem to do this, to reach too close to the flame or the boundaries, and it often takes a burn or a slow meltdown to realize what I needed to learn… approach cautiously, judge from a distance… listen to the wise speaker and heed their warnings. The last picture was taken at our last City Church fall retreat. It was a beautiful moment in a sun-filled field on a walk of escape that was so dearly needed. My dear husband came with me into this open field that reminded me of the West 40, and we stared at the golden grass waving in the sunshine as I melted down. I sobbed and told him of my fears, my anxieties, that were rising in my chest like a wave that I could not stop. They reached my shoulders, seized my heart, fogged my brain, and left me burnt and ashy, remnants of what I used to be. I was being consumed, and I didn’t know what to do to stop it. I remember him holding me and rubbing my back. I remember him speaking tender words to me. I remember prayer. And I remember opening my eyes to beauty and a few minutes of serenity and clarity. I remember saying I never wanted to leave that place, and then wiping my eyes before taking this picture, full of joy.

Then, I remember coming down from that place again, that high ascent, grasping his hand, and returning again to the fog and the mire, to the slow burn… It lasted for five more months, the fog and the flame, eating away at me. In March, I felt much like this – remnants of what I used to be.

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There was good all around me, but it was hard to see. I had burned down and left a chasm that needed to be filled, and at the right time, God showed me restoration. This field above is in my parents’ backyard. My father, who knows of my pyrotechnic tendencies, said last spring, “Marie, I have some burning that we can do. I saved you a huge pile.” We lit it on a quite windy day, and it caught and spread, quickly. No matter the hoses we dragged out to spray, no matter the hands on deck, the fire spread, and we couldn’t stop it. The fire department came twice, not once. It even reignited three hours later after we all thought it was put out. But what has come of that space is now beautiful, lush, filled with green grass healthier than it was before, and it only took a few weeks to start showing the beauty out of the ashes. Sure, there was embarrassment at what had happened; we didn’t mean to start the fire. There was anger from others, unintentional casualty; a neighbor didn’t understand our intentions; she even thought that we wanted this. Though, mostly there was understanding, a few laughs when the fear had died, a few slaps on the backs and, “It’s okay”s. A few voices reassuring that even people who always seem to make smart decisions have a goof-up now and then that they can’t fully control. We’ve all been there. There was grace.

And, I’m realizing new truths now. That God is an all-consuming fire, and we should be thankful for that. Grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, grateful that he is no longer to us the burning bush that cannot be approached, but a fire that burns within, a spirit that is indwelling, and his fire burns pure and perfectly. His fire consumes even those smaller fires we set in our own lives… His fire is our salvation; we must step closer and hurl ourselves in or be swept into something else. We must submit to Him, reverently and with awe and worship.

So, this morning, I leave for school with that. That we have not the scary, untouchable, awesome God from the Old Testament, but instead we have mount Zion and the city of the living God. We have innumerable angels in festal gathering, an assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, we have God, the judge of all, the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant whose sprinkled blood speaks a better word for us. He is removing things that are made which are so easily shaken and replacing them with what cannot be shaken. He is burning us down and growing us up. For that, I am grateful. For relief from anxiety, I am thankful.

May you meet this all-consuming fire that I speak of today, and may you be swept up in its glow and glory. That is my prayer for you, and for me, continually. Amen.

[Hebrews 12:18-29]

There’s a Hole in my Soul, I Can Feel It, I Can Feel It…

Oh, the tangled webs we weave.

Bastille in their song “Flaws” sings, “You always wore your flaws along your sleeves. And I buried them deep beneath the ground. Dig them out. Let’s finish what we started. Dig them out, let nothing be undone.” I played this song for my students yesterday and we talked about flaws, about vulnerability and being gentle with ourselves and others. It’s fitting that my own devotion would apply to me this morning, and perhaps to you. Do you wear your flaws or your sleeve? Or do you bury them deep? Are you weary this morning? Or are you relying on the Lord’s strength? Your own? Perhaps you’re like me and you think you’re good to go, but you just haven’t crashed and burned yet. I’m trying to coast to a stop more easily than I used to, to settle into a slow jog, a trot, then a walk, rather than having an epic crash with skinned knees, concussions, and other various hazardous injuries that occur when you just. won’t. stop. Because that’s me. I just won’t stop, much of the time.

That persistent voice keeps telling me to slow down, you know… that “pesky” ever-so-wise Holy Spirit. He keeps saying, “Be gentle with yourself.” He keeps saying, “Rely on me, not yourself.” He keeps saying, “Whoa girl… you know you can’t run on your own steam forever. Or even for a second… You have to come refill. You have to come to me. To the Lord. Only my Word has life.”

And yet, I often don’t listen. Often it’s the last thing that I do. I’m getting better at it, but boy, am I a stubborn, hard-headed one, and I know I’m not alone. We’re a hard-headed people… often a hard-hearted people.

There’s a hole in my soul. Can you feel it? Can you feel it? There’s nothing else that can fill that hole in my soul other than the Lord. Only the Lord. Only Christ. And yet, I try to fill it or ignore with so many other things, mainly myself, my work, my efforts, my, my, MY. So selfish am I in my pursuits to care for others or to do my job. The devil is a sneaky one, prowling like a lion, clever like a snake. But I will crush his head. I will turn his plans to ashes. I will cry out to the Lord, and I will tell Satan to flee, and he will flee from me. For what Satan plans for evil, what we do to ourselves is turned to evil, but God works it for good. ALWAYS. (Genesis 50:20)

So let’s wear our flaws on our sleeves. Let’s finish what we started. Let’s let nothing be undone.

Lord, Finish this work that you started. Forgive me for trying to do it all on my own. Thank you for making me learn this lesson over and over and over again so that I have to keep coming back to you, so that my efforts are in vain, and you are glorified. Thank you that you are strong and powerful and the source of my strength. Strengthen my weak knees, lift my weary hands to you, and make straight paths for my feet, Lord, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Heal me, Father. Amen.

(Hebrews 12: 12-13)

To Those Who Say We Should Fire Bad Teachers

I recently found a strongly worded article that I wrote in my second year of teaching. I’m now starting my eighth year, and though I am for once not in a public school, I still get fired up thinking about those who make claims like, “We should just fire all of the bad teachers” or “Teachers’ pay or position should depend upon their students’ test scores.” Want to know why I get so fired up? Feel free to read. I stand by those words as much today as I did then.  

To Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert in response to their recent Newsweek article about firing bad teachers,

As a second year teacher, I have no argument with the premise that bad teachers should be let go. Of course, teachers who have made mistakes as grievous as the ones mentioned at the end of your article should not still be teaching. However, I do have a serious problem with proposing that we treat school as a business (implied through many of the arguments and quotes of this article). School is not a business. It is not something you opt into. It is a requirement for every child in the United States, and unlike businesses, public schools do not hire and fire kids for uncompleted work or for failing to perform up to their potential.

I teach with a veteran teacher who is close to retirement. Yesterday, we sat talking about this Newsweek article at lunch, and she rightly chose to give a rebuttal to the comment that, “Once upon a time, American students tested better than any other students in the world. […] the achievement gap between white students and poor and minority students stubbornly persists—and as the population of disadvantaged students grows, overall scores continue to sag.” She pointed out that when she began her teaching career, her only real options were to become a teacher or a nurse. Also, when she began her teaching career, many students who struggled academically or posed behavior issues dropped out at an early age to get a job. The truth is, that “once upon a time” was a time when struggling students were not as well served by our public education system, and the seeming lack of struggling students then probably added to the fact that students tested well. It may be that the teaching skill has not lowered, but instead we better include struggling students in our schools, and their scores now play a role in our “reputation” as an education system.

In this article, it was quoted that “Measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils would be a no brainer.” I STRONGLY disagree. There is much a teacher has control over – how effectively they teach, how much they continue to learn about the craft of teaching, the rules in his or her classroom, etc. We do not, however, have control over a students’ motivation to learn or a students’ steady increase in grades or test scores. There is much we can do to try to motivate and embolden our students, to help them take risks with their learning and TRY to succeed. However, there is no guarantee. These kids are PEOPLE. Granted, they are not grown and fully developed, but they are PEOPLE and people cannot be controlled fully. They are not wholly predictable, and to compound that, each child is different. If you have taught even a year, or if you have several children, you know that every child responds in different ways, and the “teaching” you do whether in your classroom or in your home with your kids must vary in order to be effective. Bottom line: If scores were used to measure teacher performance, I believe we would lose a lot of good teachers in addition to the bad ones. There are far too many factors playing into a student’s success – their home life, their access to resources, their personality, their learned behaviors, their state of mind, etcetera, to base a teacher’s skill set on his or her students’ test performance, even in part.

Daniel Weisberg, general counsel of The New Teacher Project, was quoted in this article saying that, “the Marine Corps never has any problem meeting its enlistment goals […].” That is fine and good for the Marine Corps, but Marines are in charge of themselves – themselves and possibly a unit of soldiers who are motivated to belong. If a soldier gets out of line and doesn’t perform, they have no responsibility to keep him or her in the program. As a teacher, you are in charge of yourself AND (in my case) 80 students. I can work and work and love them and love them and pray and pray that those students will work hard, and many of them will, but what happens when one doesn’t? Do we kick her out? Do we turn our back? No. Our public education system requires that we persist, and unless she becomes a danger to herself or others, she continues to stay in our school, and there is no guarantee that she will come around. Public education is not a business, and it is not the Marine Corps. It is public education – a whole different organization of a different kind.

I do not claim to have all of the answers, but what I do know is that the public education system does need some reformation and “measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils” is not the solution we need. What I truly believe is that it’s about time that policymakers started asking teachers (those good ones you mentioned, because there are many of us) what we propose, and see how that pans out. I have a feeling the public will be impressed with the solutions we come up with if we are given the time and respect to troubleshoot about our own very noble and very challenging profession.

Sincerely troubled by your article,