"Me Too"

By Maddie Young

It’s been over two weeks. I’ve been lagging behind my intimate time with Jesus. The infamous purple pen has barely made contact with the inside of my journal. Part of my authenticity has been pushed to the back burner. Most of November smeared together like peanut butter and jelly in between two slices of freshly baked bread and I’m just now taking a quiet moment. I’ve finally secluded myself in the cozy corner of my war room.

Digging deeper into the gunk that has settled into my soul completely unwelcomed, there’s a moment that I unintentionally avoided. Shame and discomfort bubble to my heart’s surface similar to the fizz atop an ice cold soda.

We’ve been friends for nearly a year. I never thought something like this could happen to me. By now one would think I’ve would’ve learned to expect the unexpected but nope, not with this crazy life I live. The more I try to ponder over the situation, I still can’t pinpoint how it actually started.

As the conversations gradually grew the vulgarity heightened. Changing the subject was nearly impossible. I was in complete disbelief. There was no time to process what was going on. Your disgusting talk continued. All you wanted to talk about was sex. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. Is this all guys think about?

You described in detail what you desired to do with me. Vitamin “D” would supposedly cure my stress. The words “friends with benefits” flew around like fireflies with no intended destination. All talk seemed so natural and normal to you. But me, I felt violated and ashamed. If I didn’t tell anyone then maybe it wouldn’t seem like real life. Despite knowing I have a boyfriend you continued to push, asking if I thought I could keep up with your sex drive or concerned that I might formulate feelings for you with how often we would do it.

After a couple days I finally mustered up enough courage to talk to someone. I was scared and felt like I was in the wrong. I think I was also in denial. Through social media and the news I’ve heard the “#metoo stories” but it never fazed me that one day I too would be using those simple words. It took telling three people and their torn up reactions to acknowledge that I was being sexually harassed.

For so many years I’ve taken everyone else’s crap regardless of how it might damage me. I thought this talk was ok because I didn’t do anything to stop it. As scary as it’s been there has also been clarity and growth. It is never ok to talk to a female or anyone for that matter they way you did. I should never think twice about telling someone. There are more people who will love and protect me than I realized. This is just another bump in the road and not a dead end.

I will take this piece and add it to my story like a rugged puzzle piece fitting into a grander picture. I don’t know why this all happened but I trust that Jesus will reveal the plan in His time.

I will be ok.

 Maddie Young

Maddie Young

Bunkbeds

By Rachel Dowda

I learn through movements, through textures and sounds; an overwhelming variety of sensory models. I can know something for years, and then I actually participate and it finally becomes a truth, like when Helen Keller touched water for the first time. I’m learning to let God be my Papa, to be personal and near and release Him from the bear-like tendencies He often has in my mind. He’s becoming more and more His true self, the way He has always been when removed from my assumptions and intellect. The God who is near in my fear and worries, the one who holds me against His chest and His heart beats, waxing and waning like the oceans against my cheek. 

A few years ago I was asked to watch my friends’  kids. All I was supposed to do was get them in their pajamas, help them brush their teeth, tell them a few stories, tuck them in, pray over them, and then watch Netflix the rest of the time. It was rainy and the kids were drowsy so it was an easy night until I heard crying from the boys’ room. I walked into the dark and peeked over the edge of the bunk bed. The little boy looked at me with big, worried eyes and said, “Rachel, I feel so afraid. Will you stay with me?”

I climbed up the ladder and squeezed in next to him, under a little canopy with his nightlight reflecting galaxies over the fabric. ‘What’s wrong, baby?” I asked. 

“My teeth are hurting me and I’m afraid they are all going to fall out," he whispered, his breathing quick and panicked. “Will you lay next to me until I fall asleep?” I could have been practical and logical, and tell him that his teeth are supposed to fall out and he’s worried for no reason and it’s time for bed, but instead I laid my head on his stuffed dragon and put my hand on his chest and whispered comforting words to him. Because fear is always real to the person experiencing it, and I felt an overwhelming amount of love for this little boy, love that pushed all practicality aside and made room for understanding and tenderness. 

He laid there, with wide eyes and every time I spoke his eyes would get heavy and his breathing would slow. I would stop and they would pop right back open and he would touch his teeth and panic until I spoke to him again. Realizing this, I kept speaking. Eventually I could tell he was sleeping, and I tried to slide down the ladder, but he sat up immediately and cried out, “no! You need to stay with me!”. This cycle happened two more times before I realized that I just needed to make myself comfortable, with him snuggled up next to me. It was my pleasure, really. Alleviating someone’s fear is a gift and I was overwhelmed with understanding. My whole life I struggled with fear and so many nights I laid in bed, unable to sleep and too prideful to ask someone to stay. Even God. I laid there for almost an hour, drowsy and content, thankful to be someone’s saving grace. 

So often I heard God climb the ladder to my bunk bed,  and I whispered, "go away. You should be punishing me right now." Actually, I take that back--he’s not climbing up, but already there, laying next to me, with his head lying on my stuffed bear and all covered up with my floral sheets. But my back is turned to him, feeling like I should be suffering under the weight of uncertainty and a fear that has no root in reality. A fear that doesn’t envision him in my future.  

Even a little progress needs to be celebrated and more and more I’m turning over to face Him, to acknowledge that He’s there, with His hand on my chest, His words calming me, putting me to sleep. Its hard to imagine God mad at you when you envision Him snuggled under a tent full of galaxies, on the top bunk, His hand resting over your heart. Thats a way more realistic view of him anyway. Every time He speaks I feel peace flood my body and eventually I sleep. 

 Rachel Dowda

Rachel Dowda

The Joy that Lies in Heartbreak 

By: Brianna Sutherland

There is something that happens when you start to figure out who you are. 

For the past four years, the University of Georgia has been my home. I came to Athens as a confused eighteen-year-old who had been taught by life that she wasn’t worth much. I came with no thought in my head as to who I wanted to be or where I wanted to go in life. I came not knowing that there was a gaping hole in my heart that I could not fill with alcohol or any of the other less than savory options that college life provided me. 

This December, I will throw my cap with the knowledge that I am venturing out into the world wholly new, having shed the doubt, fear, and brokenness that plagued me upon my arrival. I know who I want to be, where I am going next, and where I want to end up. I know that love is only valuable to you if you choose to accept it and that it will break the hearts of the ones that love you if you push their love away. I know that sometimes, someone you love will push your love away and it will break your heart. 

Graduating college marks a pivotal change in my life. I will no longer have classes a couple hours a day, finding time to lounge in the sun no matter how hectic my schedule gets. I will enter a world where punctuality and consistency are far more important and procrastination is no longer tolerated. The corporate world is standing before me, a towering, gray, concrete office building with no windows and no sunshine. To me, the prospect is daunting, if not depressing. But I know where I want to go and this is a stepping stone. So, as I walk through the Arch on graduation day, I will think about everything and everyone that has brought me joy during my time here. And my heart will break because the season of my life that showed me hope and light will be over. 

I know where I’m going, and that means that I have changed, even in the past month. I have watched my friends graduate, find jobs, find love and one by one they are all leaving. It’s been a terrible, angry, devastating journey. Some have stayed close and others have gone far, but in last few months we have clung together, driving a hundred miles, sleeping on couches, doing nothing together because we are resisting letting go. We are fighting against the idea that when college is done, we will all adopt our own lives and drift away, out of sight, and eventually, out of mind. 

Best friends, and one in particular, have chosen paths that brings them farther from me every day and it has made me angry and irrational and mean. My heart is broken when I think of the people that I am losing. I see them making new futures for themselves and I wonder why they can’t keep one foot in the past. I wonder why they don’t feel that they can keep their old friends and still become a new person, but then again, you can’t surround yourself with people who don’t support you and ultimately that’s how my friend feels. Maybe, our differences have grown too broad and deep and can no longer be spanned by the history of our love for each other. 

The hardest lesson from this is that sometimes, in the right situations, with the right people, love can never be enough. If I turn one way and my friend turns another, when I look over my shoulder, hoping for a glimpse, all I will see is my friend’s back, fading into the horizon as they go on their way. And how can I blame them when I am walking the other way, a similar journey, with a wildly different destination. 

This is a heartbreak that happens very slowly. In the beginning, when your edges are cracking, you barely even notice. It appears as a fixable problem: an argument, a disagreement. By the end, you are looking into the distance, trying to remember the moment that your friendship ended, blaming the person on the other side, while knowing that for a friendship to end, two people have to give up. The blame is half mine. But I feel as if I own all of the pain.

Lastly, I know who I am, and that means changing my actions, thoughts, and words. For much of my life, I have been wrestling with how to be happy when you feel like the walls are constantly coming down around you. I have always identified as a Christian, albeit a hypocritical one. I clutched my cross to my chest and prayed to God that one of my sins would make me happy. I fundamentally misunderstood His love for me. 

Becoming a Jesus Follower is a like a deep breath of cold air. It electrifies every trembling nerve in your mind and body. It changes your vision so that suddenly, you are aware of brighter, better colors than this world had showed you before. I have seen the awesomeness of His love and have been the recipient, even when I am the last person who expected or deserved it. 

For me, this journey has not been some bright, magical experience filled with love and hope while the people of my new beautiful church surrounded me with light. I have seen this portrayed over and over on screens hung in auditoriums that service thousands a day. I expected this. I wanted this. But for me, it’s not reality. 

Reality, in my life, has been punctuated by the scoffing of my friends when I ask them to go to church, confusion about my own past actions, and a fundamental misunderstanding by outsiders of what becoming a Jesus Follower means. I have had to explain myself when I had no explanation to give and it has made me strong and confrontational. 

God has been there, and through all this change and loss, I have realized that in life, I love many things and people, but they are not constant. My beautiful, loving mother will die one day. My amazing sister might move away. There is a chance that as I lay in my bed dying, hopefully when I am old and gray, I will have no one. Everyone will have left me prematurely. But He will be there, holding my hand, guiding me home. In the end, I know that is enough.

This has been the concept that has troubled me most. In this season of my life, I need to make several major transitions as gracefully as I can manage. I need to let go of my fear and expectations and know that God is on my side. But still I have an iron grip on the things that I want in this world. Letting go of who I thought I was going to be might be the most heartbreaking change of all. But it is also the greatest joy. Over the next six months, I will experience more change, punctuated by losses and gains. It will be heartbreaking, but it will also be one of the brightest times in my life. An exclamation mark on the sentence that was my college experience.

The Song We Choose to Sing

By Madison Garrett

We had been waiting for months. Years, even. 

Ever since they announced it, we had been ready. 

We had March 17th written down on our calendars ever since they advertised it for the first time back in October. We knew the casting a year before the commercials started coming out and we listened to every song sample as they were released, discussing in depth every note and voice and every tiny, minute change from the original. 

When opening weekend was finally upon us, we had our tickets ready and popcorn in hand. We, like millions, gathered under the big screen to see our favorite childhood movie come to life. Molly and I shrieked as the screen went from black to vibrant color, revealing the classic Disney castle. Anna and I cried when “Beauty and the Beast” popped up in gorgeously gilded lettering and again when Belle and the Beast danced their famous dining room waltz. 

I cry at movies. Not a cute, one-tear-streaming-down-a-pale-cheek cry, a full-on, red-nosed, curled-up-in-my-chair-clutching-my-knees cry. Name a movie and I’ve probably cried during it. My siblings place bets on me whenever we see a movie together. When we went to see Inside Out, they guessed three times. Later, I blew them away with an astounding five times when we went to see Moana. I get wrapped up in it all: the stories, the honesty, the metaphors about JESUS that are inherently found in art, evidence of a creative, story-telling God making himself known through His creative, story-telling children. I find myself lost in the characters’ emotions and in their adventures and stories and all of a sudden, I can’t help but cry because my heart is so swollen with truth and beauty and freedom and emotion. 

Beauty and the Beast was unsurprisingly no different.

Those of you who have seen it are probably somewhat familiar with a brand new song, “Days in the Sun”, performed by the entire cast, including everybody in the castle from the young prince mourning his mother, to the enchanted household objects reminiscing, to Emma Watson as Belle reviewing and responding to it all. The lyrics take my breath away, particularly when the wardrobe sings: 

Oh, I could sing of the pain these dark days bring

Or the spell we're under

Still it's the wonder of us I sing of tonight.

Madame de Gardarobe doesn’t sing of pain. She doesn’t sing of the darkness. The wardrobe does not sing of the desolation, the longing, the loneliness, the heartache that I’m sure she experiences as a human living as a wardrobe and as a woman separated from her husband. She does not sing of the old days; she does not sing songs of nostalgia, of wishing for what was, what was easier, or what was known.  Instead, she sings of perseverance. She sings in belief that the days in the sun will return, not in the hopelessness that they are gone. She sings of WONDER, of the endurance of the human spirit, of the hope and love they continue to insist upon even in their trapped, uncontrollable, isolated state. The wardrobe sings a song different from her circumstance. Better yet, she sings in opposition to her circumstance. She sings hopefully in the midst of darkness. She sings of wonder in the midst of wilderness. 

And all of the sudden, I’m crying. 

THIS IS IT, I want to exclaim. THIS IS HOW WE WORK THROUGH THE TENSION. THIS IS HOW WE CLAIM VICTORY. THIS IS HOW WE CLING TO HOPE. THIS IS HOW WE DISCOVER THE GUSTINESS, THE EARTHINESS, THE FORTITUDE OF LOVE. 

We start singing. 

We sing when we shouldn’t. When we aren’t supposed to. When the scene is dark and the outlook grim and the prognosis shorter than we want it to be, we sing and we celebrate and we believe. We choose joy when we shouldn’t. We praise when we do not understand, believing that the most powerful Hallelujahs come from the depths of our heartbreak: in that painful moment when we cannot see the end of the story yet proclaim victory anyway.

As I find myself yet again in-between seasons and places and decisions, I am also caught in-between hope and uncertainty. As my dad fights brain cancer (but more importantly- fights fear), he too is in between doubt and belief. We are all in between, clinging to a sticky hope that he will be healed, that prayers will be answered, that the story is not over. We have the choice: hope or uncertainty. They cannot coexist. There is not room in our human hearts for both at the same time. It is either hope, with all its danger, risk, and breathlessness, or despair.  And every decision I make, every book I read, every song I listen to, needs to point me closer to whatever I choose. Every book I read is preparation. Am I filling my mind with grief or with belief? The music I fill my ears with- what are the lyrics telling my heart? And in my heart, in my prayers, do I sing of wonder or do I sing of crippling doubt? 

The song we choose to sing matters. The atmosphere we set for the way we struggle matters. The underscore to our un-understanding changes the melody of the way we believe.

Because I too want to sing of perseverance. I want to stand against the darkness and crow and belt out loud, reverberating notes of hope that change the landscape I am living in. I want to sing of hope in the process and in the progress. Progress is a privilege we did not expect to be allowed. This story was supposed to end, closed firmly by the malignancy of cancer thirty eight weeks ago. It was supposed to be quick, relentless, inflammatory, and chaotic. The prognosis said three weeks at most, but HERE WE ARE, at week forty one, still living in the five percent chance and celebrating that miracle every chance we can. 

We are living where feet may fail. We are living in dangerous territory (or terror-tory) as we don’t yet know how the story will end. But still: it is the wonder of us I sing of tonight. It is the JOY my family is somehow able to find in this season. I sing of the macaron making and the nickname giving and the inside jokes developed and the level of intimacy we have entered into that we can never exit. 

THIS is what it is like to sing of the wonder of us: to recognize the growth of each individual and call it sacred, rather than shattering. 

We focus on the love and not on the pain. We focus on the heart and not on the change. Yes, our normal is unrecognizable, but the faces are not, and the faces and the hearts are STEADFAST. We will not give power to our pain because we will not let it damage the relationships we have built, that we still build, and that we are building upon even now. We will not let cancer steal more from us than it already has. We will sing and praise and BELIEVE that our days in the sun are not over, that they will RETURN, and that they will be more beautiful than we can fathom. We sing from our desolation and we sing from our exhaustion. We sing with every breath in our lungs; we sing to shake Heaven. We sing to change the story. We sing and we will sing until we collapse because we are singing an eternal song, a song that challenges despair, a song that helps us believe just a little bit longer.

This is the song of the valley, of the heartbroken and the weary and the seeking: we believe. We believe in what and Who we cannot see. And we cannot be convinced otherwise. We will continue to insist upon the best in one another. We will strike down thoughts of doubt, both spoken and unspoken, and we will replace them with a fervent hope in the God of miracles. We sing of the character of God and we sing of the love that has somehow surrounded us the entire battle. We sing of the provision we have seen and the provision we have yet to see and the provision we believe is coming. 

The walls of Jericho trembled when the Israelites raised their voices against it. Brick and mortar crashed to ground, tumbling after a tune of rock solid belief. 

If we sing of hope with that same fervency, this tumor has no chance against our irrefutable melody.

 Maddison Garrett

Maddison Garrett

I Love You More

By Maddie Young

Tucked into the corner of the bedroom, cross legged on the floor with my journal and Bible sprawled open. Cup full of colorful pens and a stack of index cards to the side. Bright sticky notes in various shapes and sizes. The light brown bookshelf caddy cornered filled with romance novels and inspirational stories. Golden light shines brightly from the antique lamp. This is my retreat, my safe haven.

The monster has kept me hostage for the past couple weeks. Drawing me deeper into an endless hole, like my feet slipping away in gooey quicksand. Trapped with no escape. Crawling out of bed has become more difficult and nights have grown restless. My emotions walking on a tightrope, ready to break at any given moment.

After long, stress filled work days I come and rest comfortably in the safety of my cozy corner. The single place where my undivided attention is centralized on Jesus. A place where the Holy Spirit is alive and present and the enemy is unwelcome. I’ve cried tears of thanksgiving and also desperation in this space. Worship music has floated effortlessly in the environment but I’ve also basked in the utter silence. Only allowing conversion between my Father and I here. Freshly painted finger nailed hands lifted high absorbing His presence. Kneeling in prayer and pressing into The Truth. This is my “war room.”

Lies cultivated by the enemy fill my already vulnerable brain. Unworthy. Alone. Unwanted. Broken. Impossible to love. Each slowly stripping away any signs of life. The fear of shutting down struck my mind. This is what the enemy wants but I can’t allow myself back down a treacherous trail. Jesus is my lifeline.

Clinging to Him, I reach for my purple pen ready to spill my mind and heart out. Something catches my attention. Looking down, my tattoo seems to move to the forefront of my mind. My mind easily gets distracted and sometimes it’s hard to remember the truth behind it. An alluring butterfly on my right wrist. The same wrist I would attempt using a stick or scissors to numb the pain momentarily. An elegant design created by my art therapist at the time. The body, a semicolon, representing the life I chose to continue living. Wings spread to remind me that the life of a caterpillar was nice but living as a butterfly is incomparable. The most valued part of all, the words “I love you more” curve up the one wing.

I love you more. Four simple words with an immense power. At times the monster’s voice is louder than usual distorting my thoughts and reality. These four words speak truth and wisdom. I remember that my Heavenly Father loves me more than I can imagine. My sisters and family pop into view. All of my treatment team from Atlanta. The sweet circle of sisterhood and even daily interactions with complete strangers. A concoction of such a diverse yet pure cluster of souls reminding me of a wonderful gift.

Various bible verses pop in mind. Jesus’ love like a warm cup of tea and a thick snuggly blanket on a dreary winter morning. First, Romans 5:8. He has loved me at my darkest. In the black hole, vegetable state; He still loved me. Zechariah 2:5, “And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will be its glory within.’” Jesus protects and shields me from the enemy. Also, Zephaniah 3:17, “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”

Wow. Let all of that sink in. Jesus takes me exactly as I am. Flawed yet still worthy. He loves and takes me for who I am, the authentic Maddie Rae. Not what society thinks I am or who the monster tries to tell me I am. Jesus takes the raw, no makeup, messy bun, cluttered brain Maddie and still loves me for more than I can fathom.

He loves me more.

 Maddie Young

Maddie Young

The Stretching

By Madison Garrett

“We have never been here before — and that’s holy.” 

She draws in a long breath and sits with her hands gently pressing against one another with just enough tension to feel a stretch, but accompanied by a gentleness that speaks grace into the groan. 

“We have never been here before,” she repeats, soothingly,  “And that’s sacred.” 

The room smells like essential oils. I smell vaguely of sweat and the frankincense blend the yoga instructor just smeared on my feet for balance. My body is exhausted after an hour of planks and forward folds and almost-but-not-quite reaching my toes and hamstring stretches and tree poses. It’s too early and the Sara Donuts placed cruelly next door is calling my name, but I remain in the tension of my Vinyasa flow, moving from Downward Dog, to a plank, to a Baby Cobra. My hamstrings strain and my core aches and we just keep going: downward dog, plank, baby cobra, downward dog, plank, baby cobra. 

I have never been here before — and that is holy. 

I want to memorize that, write it on my heart. Such offhand words from my yoga instructor ring true to me especially: I have never seen a season like this. I have never seen, and never really expected to see, myself practicing yoga with a bunch of middle aged women in my hometown. I never saw myself working for a fundraising company right out of college. I never saw myself living at home; I certainly never saw myself believing the lie that I am falling behind my peers, that my hard work was not enough, that I will be stuck, stagnant, ineffective, for the rest of my life. 

I have never been here before, but it doesn’t feel holy. 

It feels hard. 

I never saw myself knowing the intimate effects of brain cancer. I never thought I would live in that place. I never thought I would see my dear friends fight that same battle and I certainly never thought that so many of us would know the beast so personally. I never imagined that the sight of four of my dear friends leaving to go white water tubing one early summer morning would take our mothers’ breath away- because all four of us have had cancer in their family. All four of us have fought daily for hope. And all four of us have found joy and escape in each other.

I never thought I would see cancer up close so consistently. Yet when I wake up, it is in bed drinking coffee with almond creamer, the windows cracking open with morning light. I see it in way my dad moves, in the cruel way that it tangles his independence and alters his diet. Cancer staggers my dad’s walk up the stairs, increases his trips to the bathroom, and steals his attention span, our conversations, and his filter. It fatigues him around one or two in the afternoon and puts him to bed early before the sun goes down. 

This a place I have never seen before, but it does not feel sacred. 

It feels broken. 

It feels complicated and it feels demanding and arduous and fractured. 

It feels unfair. 

And somedays, it feels like I am in the rut of cyclical exhaustion, of early mornings and long days and long drives, of evasive joy and evasive rest, of a life jarringly unexpected in a way that does not feel sacred, but scary. It feels like stretching, stretching, and stretching without release.   I’m breathing hard and deeply and wishing for a clock on the wall to tell me how much longer I must remain in this place. I wish class could be over and this season could be over and I could spryly hop to my next season, my next pose, my next mindset. This one is getting tired. This one has ceased being sacred and fun and now it’s just a fight. Discontentment takes root in my heart and grows a black and thorny flower: I have never been here before. Why do I have to be here still? 

It’s that time-old tension: 

    This is not the life I thought I would have. 

    This is not the person I thought I would be.

And that’s hard and good and messy and complicated because every part of who I have always been wants to love who I am and the life I live. But nothing is what I expected it to be and loving the unexpected is a lot tougher than loving what is known. 

I breathe in deeply and try to remember the words of my yoga instructor. We have never been here before- and that is holy. 

Can I believe that new places are sacred again? 

In the past two years, so many of my new places have been hard. They have been hospital rooms and surgeries and helping dad to the bathroom and new levels of physical exhaustion and new moments of grief. 

I have never been here before; is that holy? I don't want to fight the tension anymore. I don’t want to fight the stretch. I want this to become a place where growth can begin anew. Maybe the best thing I can do these days is allow myself to sit in the tension and in the stretching and feel every feeling that comes to me. Maybe I need to feel the stress and the strain and the stretch, because the release it coming and will be so sweet. Maybe I need to lean in and stretch a little bit more because stretching in and of itself is worthwhile. Maybe I need to feel the stretch because the stretch in and of itself takes me to new places. 

And now, as I think about it, we, as a family, are going to new places, places we would never have seen and ministries we would never have been allowed without the admittance stamp that cancer has given us. If pain is our passport, I am determined to use it until that little bound booklet is threadbare and falling apart, every page filled with every stamp allowed to me. 

Maybe the Lord, in this season, did not give me a suitcase. He did not give me baggage that I now have to drag along behind me. He did not give me a story that will weigh down my heart and keep me from running full speed. He gave me a boarding pass, and a blank boarding pass at that. He paid for my ticket and I get to take this story wherever he leads as follow him with open hands to where He may lead. 

The pain hurts. Hurting with hope still hurts. But pain and holiness are not opposites. In fact, they are my flight attendants that welcome me aboard as I travel to new heights and new depths that i would never have seen without the heartbreak I have experienced. 

And that is what is holy. That stretching, that new place, feels hopeful rather than hard. This kind of stretching is new, but I must believe that it is holy. I must believe it is sacred. I must believe it is meaningful. 

I take a deep breath, center myself, and stretch a little bit more. 

I take another deep breath. If pain is my passport, then stretching my heart and my expectations are like preparing for takeoff. My heart is in the upright and locked position, my gaze set on the one who directs my steps. 

I take another deep breath. I will stretch. I will keep going. I will not be afraid.

 Madison Garrett

Madison Garrett

Release

By Maddie Young

“One of the most courageous decisions you’ll ever make is to finally let go of what is hurting your heart and soul.” - Brigitte Nicole 

{release :// to free from confinement, bondage, obligation, pain, etc.; let go ; to free from anything that restrains, fastens, etc.}

There I sat, indian style on the lush green grass. My black yoga pants with a brush swipe of white paint on the knee and royal blue oversized T-shirt. “Shriners hospital for children,” printed in the top left corner. Hair thrown up wildly in a sloppy ponytail. The humidity seemed suffocating which lead to feeling gross and sticky. It’s the first day of fall but there were no signs of crisp wind or chunky sweaters anytime soon. That’s the south for you though. Airplanes roaring by like thunderous storm clouds and cicadas creating that distinguished sound. The day’s makeup nearly smeared completely off. I am an utter mess. 

There was this clear picture painted in my head. Matching colored balloons, each holding pieces of various letters inside. Atop the mountain overlooking the magnificent view right as the sun set. With my best friend capturing the moments as I released the helium filled latex. It would be perfect. Full of symbolism and faith. A joyous moment filling me with pride. 

Except this is nothing how it went. Grass smooshed between my toes, I took my mismatched balloons and plopped down in the side yard. I was angry and disappointed. Plans had fallen through and isolation was settling in. The image sculpted in my head was breaking down piece by piece. Part of me didn’t want to release anything anymore. I didn’t care about moving forward in recovery. Subconsciously, I was clinging to the discomfort and despondency created by my father, sister, ED and the monster. Emotional mind fogging up the view of wise mind. Tears began to fall. First gently then more aggressively. 

The sun was ready to turn in for the night and I was still gripping tightly to the white strings. Salty water droplets streaming steadily down my freckley cheeks. Clicking open the Pandora app, I choose Hillsong United in hopes my stubborn monster will shut up. Attempting to clear my mind the best I could and grow present in the moment, my heart is filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus relit the fire inside my soul but I could feel the enemy seeking to suffocate the red orange flames. The world seemed to be spinning slowly, like a snail searching for food, yet the worship songs were adjusting momentarily. As the tears continued to roll, I allowed my heart to open up fully to embrace the complete rawness and brokenness. The moment my Heavenly Father was anxiously waiting for.   

Staring intensely at the mismatched balloons, subconsciously I think, “this shouldn’t be this hard.” Thirty seven minutes had passed and as I was on the verge of giving up, “I am not alone” by Kari Jobe blares out of the iphone. The angelic words capture my breath. 

When I walk through deep waters

I know that You will be with me

When I'm standing in the fire

I will not be overcome

Through the valley of the shadow

I will not fear

I am not alone

I am not alone

You will go before me

You will never leave me

In the midst of deep sorrow

I see Your light is breaking through

The dark of night will not overtake me

I am pressing into You

Lord, You fight my every battle

And I will not fear

You amaze me

Redeem me

You call me as Your own

You're my strength

You're my defender

You're my refuge in the storm

Through these trials

You've always been faithful

You bring healing to my soul

Keyboard notes filling the atmosphere. It’s as if the song was written specifically for me in this treacherous battle. My mind closes off the rest of the chaotic, monster filled world. It’s only me and Jesus. All that I could ever need in this moment. Swirls of orange and pink braid into strips of grey. “I am not alone” resonating deep within my soul. Gazing up at the jet black, sunshine yellow and violet purple balloons, with glossed over eyes, timing seemed just right. Taking in a deep breath, I slowly unwrap my crinkled hands. 

As if staying in path of my year of transition, a wave of relief washes over me. Ten balloons filled with shreds of paper drift off into eternity. Dusk has fallen over the country pumpkin town and I’m embraced with a sweet blanket of peace. The sliver of the moon greeting me with its warm white glow while the sun states its final goodbyes for the day. 

This is the ultimate transition. I feel that Jesus has been brewing this one for awhile now. Probably the hardest yet but also the most elegant and charming. Moments like this shift my perspective. My Heavenly Father doesn’t care how many Instagram likes I get or how perfect a Facebook post is. Instead, He wants my authentic, pure, broken self. While I see imperfections and unworthiness at times, my Father looks at me with the brightest smile and claims that I am chosen and holy. He welcomes my brokenness with open arms. He calls me beautiful one and vastly loved. 

They say, “the best view comes after the hardest climb” and this was my climb. 

I Am Not Alone By Kari Jobe: https://youtu.be/Ow4OfW4DP9s 

 Maddie Young

Maddie Young

Manna

By Madison Garrett

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes. 

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes. 

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes.  

I repeat this to myself over and over as we drive through a Suwanee sunset to Room 411.

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes. 

It’s a prayer and a plea and a desperate kind of hunger, a howl for the Lord to be who He says He is. It is my longing, my belief, my guttural cry and hopeful rage that calamity, chaos, and cancer will not write the story.

It’s the second weekend in a row we’ve spent in the hospital, the second weekend in a row we’ve ordered pizza or gone for burgers because no one has the energy to cook, and the second weekend in a row we’ve given all of our energy to bring Christ-light to a florescently lit hospital room. We keep making jokes that it feels like Christmas, with the most recent hurricane sending Atlanta a brisk cold front that wipes away any trace of August as we settle softly into September. This September, as it turns out, is full of anniversaries, surprise surgeries, and more desperate laughter in dreaded waiting rooms. And, unexpectedly, that same longing for Christmas, for hope, for joy, is here too. That same desperate anticipation for a reprieve is here. The longing and desire for lightness, for Jesus, is here. We sing Christmas Carols around the hospital bed even though its the second week of September and we make dad and our friends laugh- and in that laughter we can breath a little bit deeper.

Joy feels really hard these days. It doesn’t feel natural. It feels like a fight, like a constant standard I cannot match, like pressure, like disenchantment, like despair. Joy feels like despair because it doesn’t come easily and I don’t always have the courage to fight for it- and that doesn’t seem okay. That seems inherently wrong, like I’m not doing this season well enough or believing hard enough and where is the God of Justice in all this anyway? The God who says He will fight for us if we are just still- how do I find Him admits all the hurricane victims and displaced refugees and cancer patients running out of patience and the families camping out on window sills and bedsides and waiting rooms, unable to really sleep deeply at night, laughing because it feels rawer and realer than tears? Where is the God who promises to repay the years the locusts ate? Where is the Jesus who looks at His Beloved and says “Your faith has made you well”? Where is the Lover walking with me, coming up alongside me out of the wilderness? Where is the Comforter when my heart feels suspended above fragments of best-laid plans and unknown futures? Where is the One who binds up broken hearts when I cut myself on the sharp edges of a story I never expected to be living?

Joy feels really hard in my pedestrian life, when my job description reads “enthusiastic” and when that is easy at work but hard in intimate relationships and even harder when I come home.

Home is a little difficult to explain. In an attempt to protect the privacy and hearts of my family, it is a lot more difficult to write about. For a long time, writing about this season came very naturally to me. It was an outpouring of everything on MY mind, all of MY emotions, all MY processing. But coming home after graduating college suddenly means that “where we are” means “where I am” too. I have always written from a distance, but now, I am in the thick. I am in the trenches. I am up close and personal with the day-to-day effects, huddling with my fellow soldiers amid explosions and shrapnel and surgery and chemotherapy. Suddenly, not all the brokenness is mine to write about. Suddenly, my every day life looks like the wear and tear and strain of a life lived daily alongside cancer.

My new normal, though no longer a knife to the stomach, is more like a toothpick. The discrepancy between what my life is and what I thought my life would be like is no longer gut-wrenching. I no longer feel my heart torn in two by a shattered expectation. Instead, this season pricks, mildly but consistently, no longer paralyzing me but simply irking me, like a poking toothpick, like a splinter in my finger, like a thorn in my side, like a lego I continually step on but can’t figure out how to move.

It is no longer overwhelming, but subtle: it shouldn’t be like this.

It is no longer a rage, but now a vile whisper in my ear: we deserve better than this.

But “deserve” is tricky.

Deserve evokes bitterness, resentment, a discontent. It reveals a heart wrapped up in the cobwebs of entitlement, a mind tormented and underscored by a secret belief in a grace-through-works doctrine that the beautiful Lord does not subscribe to or endorse. We do not deserve this. That may be true, but “deserve” eats at my heart until it cries out wildly, barbarically, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!?”

Of course joy becomes tricky when I put myself on the cross. 

Of course joy is elusive when I make myself and my family the martyrs of this story, instead of recognizing the extent to which the Lord has provided for us in the trickiest of seasons. There are a lot of “should’s” about this season. My dad, the smartest man I have ever known, should not struggle to recall my birthday. We shouldn’t have to beg each other to treat others with love and grace and kindness. We shouldn’t have to help my dad do the simplest things, like take the stairs, when he has spent his life abundantly capable and always driven to work harder than everyone around him. This shouldn’t be the life my mom signed up for when she spoke the words “for better or for worse” at her wedding.

But all those “should’s” go out the window when we get to Room 411 and the Lord takes over. All the discontent and deserving evaporates when the drive and desire to bring joy to my father before surgery takes over, when I stop looking at my own heart to encourage the heart of the dad I know and love. What is it about that phenomenon, that desire to lighten taking over, which propels me to laugh and buoy spirits, to take back the atmosphere of the hospital and change it, to change pity to pride, to transform fear into fervor? When the instinct to let love surround the change shakes away all the “should’s”, that’s when I know, when I remember: joy never comes from me.

I am the one who wrestles with the Lord like Jacob, who runs like Gomer believing I am not enough, who cries out for my Beloved before seeking to know if He is there. The joy cannot come from me and all my fragmented pieces, who constantly wonders, cries, prays “Jesus, where are you? Jesus, only Jesus, come quickly! If not on this earth, then into our lives, into the stories that feel stagnant and cracking and bodies that are broken! Jesus,  WHERE is the joy in these tribulations? How do I count all these busted remnants JOY?”

The answer is one that I say I believe and say that I know, but the truth of which only becomes real and true and necessary when I look at it from the side of a hospital bed: joy only comes from Jesus.

And with that, the narrative of what we deserve, of “grace-through-works”, goes right out the window, which is right where it belonged in the first place. A gently-introduced humility abbreviates my expectations and invites love to come closer, closer to the hospital bed, closer to the man who is hurting and in need of grace, closer to the brokenness. No, this joy does not come from me. And what a relief that is! I do not have to be joyful. Joy comes from Jesus, daily, moment-by-moment, exactly when I need it. Joy is like manna reigning and raining from the heavens to feed discouraged hearts in the wilderness, to feed my downcast and weary soul. And daily, moment-by-moment, before we need it, we must make the decision to rise early and collect the nourishment, the provision, the miracles made available to us.

In Room 411, we tell stories, relive memories of before the diagnosis, letting the joy of then develop into the joy of now. We talk about Mitchell climbing buildings and getting queasy at the sight of blood. Molly explains her recent races, I interpret inside jokes for bewildered nurses, and we all burst into singing our favorite songs from Year Without A Santa Claus. And it’s in these moments that I can breathe deeply and remember: The Lord has not forsaken me. The Lord has not forsaken my father. Joy, in hospital rooms and outside them, is possible when the Lord is present. And the Lord My God is ever-present and ever-permanent.

But maybe joy, true joy, is not actually concerned with the permanent. In Exodus, the manna was not permanent. It was in fact extremely temporal. When the Israelites gathered more than they needed, they would wake up the next morning to a maggot-filled mess where their manna once stood. It couldn’t last the night; it wasn’t meant to. Manna is temporary. It is new every morning, not as an obligation, but as an invitation to believe more deeply. When the Israelites collected it and stored it, they compromised their view on the character of God. In collecting, in hoarding and grasping the gift with clenched fists, they were really saying “I don’t believe that the Lord will or can do this again.”  They lowered their theology to meet their needs and fears. The kind of reckless belief that I want, that Jesus delights in, collects with open hands, taking what is needed and believing that the Lord will be the same tomorrow as He is today. That kind of belief is not concerned with what is permanent, but Who is consistent. And the character of GOD is consistent, giving manna and delight and joy when they are needed, letting them be new every morning.

And now, once my mind is opened to one drop of manna, suddenly it becomes all I can see. Suddenly, everywhere I walk, I find my feet covered in manna. It brushes up against my toes, building up against them; layer upon layer of provision greets me when I look for it, when I let the little gifts of joy-giving manna be enough for me, rather than dragging myself down for not feeling joyful all the time.

And maybe THIS the miracle that I’ve been longing for and praying for. Maybe it’s the release of pressure to do things right, and instead be real and broken with real and broken people. Maybe the miracle happens when we as broken people stay and clasp hands in hospitals rooms and laugh even when everything in our world is shattering. Maybe that’s the miracle: when we sit together in our pain in gyms and box trucks and home offices, when we laugh together and when that laughter breaks the strain of pain just a little bit.

Maybe it’s the miracle or maybe it’s the manna that gets us through this season, that allows us to survive in the middle of the wilderness, that are the God-ordained moments of loveliness that keeps the heartbreaking-power of this season at bay, that keeps it from being wholly horrible. Maybe the miracle is the community that arises of the best people you wish you had met under any other circumstance. Having cancer in common both breaks and releases.

Maybe the miracle we get is the new sense of wholeness, of the holiness that comes in being wholly broken.

Maybe that’s the miracle. Maybe the miracle is something I don’t understand yet. Maybe it’s not a certain standard of health. Maybe its not a body free of cancer. Maybe it really is just the fact that God still exists and is still sweet and still listens and still gives me bits of loveliness to cling to in the midst of the really, really tough moments. It is another loaves and fish miracle from the Lord: taking what is meager and making it enough.

And daily, I want to seek it out. I want to gather it and hold it close and recognize the beauty of it, the holiness of a gift directly from the Lord. On Monday, it is in finishing ten pieces of a Thomas Kinkaide puzzle even when the purple trees make it really hard. On Tuesday, it is the people who show up and serve before my mouth can even form the words: “I need help,” the friends who bring dinner, who paint bedrooms, who bring toilet paper and paper plates when we forget to buy them, in the friends who see all the frazzled parts of our family and stay. On Wednesday, it is cotton candy clouds and a job that allows me to see both the sunrise and the sunset. Thursday’s manna is a deep, real, broken, intentional conversation with a co-worker, of two broken hearts dropping bombs and staying admits the wreckage willingly. On Friday, it is a Wendy’s frosty and a friend who is unafraid to be angry at God. On Saturday, it is listening to the same life-changing podcast over and over while driving around Atlanta and surprising my brother with a chocolate milkshake on a Georgia Tech parking deck. And then on Sunday, it is breakfast together, how rapidly we can eat bacon, and the victory that comes in making dad smile.

And the manna keeps coming:

That half-lit half-hour of showing up to work early and taking a moment to be still before I open the car door and my day begins.

Front-porching sitting with green tea and good books, filling my mind with the wisdom and words of authors and musicians like Ann Voskamp and Maria Goff and Andy Baxter and Amanda Sudano Ramierez.

The thrill of cardboard boxes on couches.

The sweet relief of laying down to sleep each night.

Joy-filled exhaustion at days that are lived meaningfully.

Watching the solar eclipse with a fifth grade class to the tune of “Dark Side of the Moon”.

A thousand stars on a clear night in North Carolina, the Cain’s dock rocking our up-since-four bodies to drowsiness.

Wind chimes playing on a morning that feels like fall.

Watching Bachelor In Paradise because silliness and simple delight is good for the soul.

Open couches from open-hearted friends.

A Lizzie McGuire marathon.

Ordering delivery after midnight.

The moment of breaking open with another broken human.

Sending good books to good people.

Winning one-armed cartwheel competitions against sassy fourth grade girls.

Staying an hour after a meeting ends to share in the simple joy of being together.

Cracker barrel at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday because our work day finished early.

Sky-streaking lightning on a drive home with the windows down and a new album on repeat.

This is all manna: the scattered bits of loveliness that barricade my heart from the hurt of this season. You are what I need. You are all I need. This is the land of the living and it is good to be alive here. Manna is the result of honest messiness, of the Lord seeing us in our wanderings and giving us what we need to keep going. He gives us- willingly, generously, and lavishly- that good, deep, intimate love that says in tangible gifts “I see you. I know you. I’m not going anywhere.”

Maybe the miracle, when there doesn’t seem to be a miracle at all, is this manna. He gives the miracle of bread and oil, of loaves and fish, of manna when we rise and quail when we are weary. He answers my cries of doubt, my questions, with quail and mourning with manna. We receive miracles in the form of manna, in the daily occurrences that I never thought I would get to have, in our puzzle time when dad can remember all the lead singers of his favorite seventies bands, in the text messages he sends, even in his groggier states, and in the typos in his Facebook posts. These are all manna- and manna is always a miracle.

We do not feel miraculous. We do not feel inspirational. We feel cracked open and broken and raw and we are hurting.

Yet our pieces, broken and scattered, are the evidentiary support that the Lord does not use people in the ways we expect. He goes above and beyond in the ways that He uses broken people, something that always always always humbles me. Because most days, our lives look like leaning: not on our own understanding, but into the messiness, into the fragmented future, into presentness, into the manna, into utter dependance, into reckless belief. He is not safe, but good, and that goodness pervades and extinguishes and relights what has been blown out. Even in doubt and heartache, I am determined: my theology will not match my pain. My pain will quiver in the brilliance and brightness and truth of my belief. Love moves closer even when love is rejected or unreturned or misread or misunderstood. When my prayers look like cries and sighs and groans too deep for words, when the unrecognizable cuts like a switchblade, love weaves us together and manna keeps us going. We gather enough for that day and we keep going, saying to the Lord “You are enough. I receive what you give as sufficient for me.”

When we look at the splintered expectations of what we thought our life was going to be and when we begin to wonder if we can actually do this, if we can actually keep going, the miracle of manna is the answer. It is the answer and the ability; it is the Lord saying “YES, my child. You can. Your strength will come from me. And you will always be able to keep going.”

The stories of the Lord do not end in ashes.

The stories of the Lord begin and end with manna.

 Madison Garrett

Madison Garrett