Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Scar Chronicles

Today is my scar’s 10th birthday.

Over the years I have come to really love scars – and mine in particular.  (Let’s face it, we have been through A LOT together!)  I love scars for a couple of reasons for sure.  For one, scars have stories!  Oft untold, some unknown, but always more than just the mark they bear.  For two, scars are the reminder of pain but the presence of healing.  It’s proof where something was once broken and hurt, has now been made new.  My scar isn’t “pretty” but the cells used to create that flesh were brand new!  Brand. Freaking. New.  Something broken turned into something healed and whole.  And that will preach…

Everyone told me my scar would be “hardly noticeable” after a year or two but 10 years later and we are still going strong!  Which, honestly, I’m okay with.  I did everything to reduce it early on.  The scar cream and the lotions and protecting it from the sun and hiding it…   But now, if I were to wake up without it one morning?  I think I would miss it.  It is so much a part of me…  And it stands as this incredible reminder.  Life has changed a lot but still it remains.  Much like God’s faithfulness…

Granted, it’s not quite the scar it once was!  From a five inch long slight smile across my neck that was bumpy and slightly grotesque to a nearly 7 ½ inch beauty (second surgery) which was somewhat cosmetically better…to today!  The end is just a faint pink line, but most is still quite visible.    

And so, 10 years later and I still get questions about my scar!  I think when you have a large scar on your arm, people start assuming fun accidents involving ladders or chainsaws or grizzly bears.  When you have a large scar across your neck, people don’t know what to think!  As a result, my scar has garnered quite an array of responses!

When I say array…I literally mean array!  Think less of the color wheel and more of a color spectrum… People’s reactions and responses have been numerous and often hilarious.  Good, bad, ugly, downright confusing… You name it, I’ve probably heard it!

I decided the best celebration of my scar’s 10th birthday was to chronicle some of those stories.  In the words of another old, good friend – Larry the Cucumber – “I laughed, I cried, they moved me, Bob!”  

So, without further ado…

The Scar Chronicles

When I first came back to SAU after surgery, I didn’t really know how to let people in on the dramatic life changes since we left for Christmas break. Still covered in bloody gauze, I covered my neck with a scarf.  People heard my [nonexistent] voice before they ever saw my neck.  They would always say “Are you sick?”  And, much to my elder sister’s displeasure I would say “Oh! Not really!”  (I thought this was funny because I didn’t have the head cold they expected… Faith did not.)  When they did see my scar, they would gasp ‘what happened?!”  “Umm, over break I found out I had cancer and they took out my thyroid…” was just a little awkward. For the same surprised reaction, however, I found I could tell a better story.  So, I started to say “Well, an old lady came up to me in the Wal-Mart parking lot.  Robbed me at knife point.  Stole my Carmex!” Most looked shocked for like a second, laughed, and then asked what really happened.  While I felt the story softened the blow, I had to stop telling it when the reactions I received included “But why did she want your Carmex?!” and “Was that the Wal-Mart in Jackson?  That is why I NEVER shop there!  I only go to the Meijer.  Way less dangerous!”   People still talk about this story.  Mostly me.

This probably should have deterred me from making up stories but sometimes I still do occasionally for a laugh.  One of my favorites is to tell young people that I was born with my head on backwards, which of course was fine until I wanted to learn how to drive.  So, I had to have a couple of surgeries to turn my head back around.  “If you look closely,” I say while demonstrating “my head still doesn’t sit totally straight.  It kind of points to the left and I can’t get it all the way to the right.  So someday they might have to fix that.”  Most pause and go “nuh-uh! That’s not true!”  And I tell them the real story.  Last year I told it to a kid in a class I subbed (instead of my normal spiel found somewhere below).  He tended to be a bit of a punk and I wanted a reaction out of him.  But he just said “oh” and left. The next day I was in the class again and some other student asked me about my scar.  He whipped around and went “You’re so stupid!  She told us about it yesterday.  She had to have her head turned around because she was born with it backwards!  DUH!”  He body slammed a reading pillow while rolling his eyes at his “ignorant” classmate.  I cleared it up with her.  I have no idea what he believes…

My first scar especially, curved up like a slight smile.  When people ask questions by saying “what is that?” I like to respond with “It’s my second smile!  See!  I smile even when I frown!”  Then I typically frown and trace my smiling scar.  The kids I work with get PUMPED about this. (I was once introduced to a parent by an excited student saying, “see her second smile, mom!”) I can really attribute it back to a friend from college, however.  We worked together on a custodial team and he said, “can I turn your scar into a smiley face?” “Why not!”  I replied, expecting him to take the sharpie in his hands to put two single dots for eyes.  When I realized the dot was becoming a full-fledged eye, it was too late.  What did I do?  Leave it as a cyclops?  Two full sharpie eyes and nose later and my neck had a face!  Which could only be [mostly] removed with 100% acetone!  The smile (without the face) lives. 

For whatever reason, when people see what appears to be a slit throat, they assume the worst.  I’ve gotten many questions about suicide attempts.  My trigeminal nerve, carotid artery, and jugular all sit directly behind my scar (cancer was “carved” off of all three).  If I was aiming with the scar I have, I don’t think I would have missed.  But it also isn’t the residual scar from a rope burn from an attempted hanging.  Guys, I promise I didn’t try to slit my throat! Or hang myself!  Or…anything in that direction!

My scar is (or was), for whatever reason, a people deterrent.  Some have come clean about it.  Others I hear about through the grape vine.  My scar scares people apparently??  It’s how I found out about one of my favorite rumors! 

My junior year I lived on a floor of mostly freshmen.  I pretty much kept to myself (for reasons in another story) but one girl seemed to avoid me like the plague.  For a freshman who didn’t know me, I thought this strange.  But, remember, I was at a pretty tame Christian Liberal Arts College.  We were eating a floor dinner once and I was talking to my RA about my upcoming/recent surgery or something and freshie sat nearby, listening nervously.  At one point she released a visible relief style sigh.  I asked her about it casually.  It was then I found out that, (though it wouldn’t surprise me if it somehow went back to my own mugging at Wal-Mart story…), I found out I was in a gang!  Or had been.  She had been avoiding me because she was afraid.  Because someone told her I had been in a gang.  (This story is WAY funnier if you know anything about me and my general persona in college or high school!).  After her confession, the stories trickled in from others.  At least twice it was reported I got my scar in a gang initiation.  A few times it was in a gang fight.  The most common report was, thank the Lord for redemption, I was in a gang, but I turned my life around and wanted out and they slit my throat.  I’ve never been so hard core before or since!

Not related but part of the “deters people” family of stories…years later I was working in Outdoor Education when I coworker reported the humorous story of a kid who, after being scratched in Reptiles and Amphibians class, declared he didn’t care because girls liked guys with scars!  We laughed collectively before I (it is my fault, really, I don’t know why I said anything!) commented something along the lines of “guys get more attractive with scars, but girls don’t, how does that work??” And a male coworker replied, “It’s true!  I think girls with scars are super unattractive.”  The table went quiet.  Another coworker went, “Dude, Anika has a super noticeable scar…”  To which the first responded with “I know.”  I had long expected my scar was an “attraction deterrent”.  While I had ZERO desire to attract any of my male coworkers, it was the first time it had been voiced so clearly.  Cheers!

Sometimes people get confused about anatomy…

I had a professor that I SUPER appreciated in college.  He cared about his students in and outside of the classroom and prayed and supported me through a lot that first semester especially.  He had this tendency the first few weeks (up to a couple of months) I was back, however, to look at me with these eyes.  Eyes that spoke a pity and an appreciation I didn’t feel I deserved – like maybe I was a living, breathing miracle.  I was in his office middle of the semester, talking about life, and at one point he stopped me.  He said “Wait, when you talk about your thyroid, you keep gesturing to your neck.  Where is the thyroid?”  I explained that it was a butterfly shaped organ that sits over the larynx, toward the base of the neck and I watched a lightbulb go on.  He responded “You’ve always said thyroid, but I think I was thinking hypothalamus.  I thought they opened your neck and went up from there into your brain…  That makes way more sense!”  The conversation moved on from there.  In my mind it was a simple mistake: he thought something first and it lodged.  It happens!  Until I remembered what the hypothalamus does.  No wonder he looked at me like I was a miracle!  Although, I did notice the weird look seemed to stop…

The summer after my first surgery I was counseling at camp.  I, (as part of another no longer remembered conversation), mentioned that I didn’t have a bellybutton (the button was lost with my gallbladder surgery, just the indent-ish hole remains, but saying you don’t have a bellybutton gets a fun response).  The other responded with a quick but otherwise serious “oh! Is that why you have that scar across your neck??”  “No…?” And then I shared the story with my friends and other counselors and we still laugh.

Last year I was subbing in a third-grade classroom.  I had been in this room a few times as the teacher was a friend of mine.  Towards the end of one day, a young gentleman came up to me and said, “Miss Kasper, did you just have a baby?”  I was suddenly very self-conscious and confused.  “No…” I replied hesitantly, waiting for the explanation I knew was coming from this particular young lad.  I braced myself.  “Then why do you have that scar across your neck?”  I chuckled and told him I would tell him tomorrow.  The class left, and I LAUGHED!  At eight years old, I’m glad he didn’t have all of the facts of life figured out yet, but I am still concerned about how he thought babies were born…

Not quite anatomy but questions about my scar sometimes warrant further concern.  Like the young girls who asked about my scar and when I gave them a brief synopsis one replied with wide eyes and not enough laughter to be attempting a joke: “DID YOU DIE???”  She seemed relieved when I told I did not and was still, in fact, very much alive. 

Most people don’t just come up and make comments about my scar unless they are children.  Which I get.  I am totally okay with people asking about my scar and, in fact, I would rather they just ask then create rumors about my shady past.  But I also realize that not everybody is, and I while I know the answer, they don’t!  Others’ stories don’t include a quick surgery.  As a result, however, I am surprised when adults do comment.  Here are some of my favorites: 
  • At a grocery store a late teen/early 20’s cashier decided to make small talk by asking “so what’s up with your neck?”  I’m normally pretty vague (because I don’t always have the time or energy to deal emotionally or otherwise with people’s reactions to “cancer”) but perhaps my shock and his abruptness caused me to reply with a simple “Cancer.  Surgery for nearly five hours.”   It is the fastest I have ever seen someone ring up groceries (outside of Aldi – those people are like cheetas!) and he ended with a quick mumbled “have-a-nice-day-ma’am”.  I felt bad for ruining his cheery mood. And also for laughing at him in the car… 
  •  As a bonding/why not? activity, I went with my fellow female RA’s and RD boss to do water aerobics my senior year of college. Now, the water aerobics class was about 96% people over the age of 60.  At one point, an elderly(er) gentleman came up to me in the pool.  Pointed to my neck and said “I see you’ve got yourself a zipper! Me too!  Wanna see?”  I didn’t say yes but he moved the swim shorts (pulled up to his chest hair) down to his bellybutton to show me a scar that looked like his gallbladder had been taken out.  I didn’t stick around for the story… 
  • I had one concerned stranger tell me in a one sentence lecture that my “neck tattoo” was the reason no one respected my generation. 
  • I had someone ask me to explain the meaning behind my confusing “neck tattoo”… 
  • I had a kid on a skateboard, however, tell me that my “neck tattoo” was “sick!” with a thumbs up of approval.  Another teen once told me it was a “kickin’ tattoo!”
  •  (*Apparently tattoos are like their own section. Do people actually get tattoos to look like scars?  Also, I once joked I would get it tattooed over.  With ivy.  Or barbed wire.  If I wasn’t so attached to my scar as is, I think barbed wire would be sweet!) 
  • I have had random people (typically women in their 40’s and 50’s) tell me if they had such a hideous scar they would use some decent cover-up!  Because there is nothing people like better than unsolicited advice from strangers!

My favorite reactions are the ones from kids!  They have less of a filter and less inhibition.  Their natural curiosity lends more quickly to a voiced question.  “Miss Anika, Miss Kasper, Anika…umm, teacher person…” (Depends on the environment) “…what happened to your neck right here?” (as they draw an imaginary line across their own necks…or mine).  I eventually will give them a short health and science lesson that includes them feeling for their own thyroids and telling them some of the important stuff it does and telling them mine “got sick” and had to be taken out.   Before that, however, I always ask “Well, what do you think happened?”  First – it gives them a chance to think about why they asked and what they actually want to know.  Second – it gives me a chance to figure out what people, even little people, think about it.  Third – it often results in funny, occasionally well thought-out, answers…   Including (but nowhere limited to)… 
  • You probably just had some sort of surgery or something… 
  • A dog attacked you! (I’ve also gotten cat, bear, and dinosaur) 
  • You were playing “Red Rover” but they caught you! 
  • You dropped your necklace into the fire and you picked up and put it back on when it was still hot and it burned you. 
  • You were at a rodeo and the cowboy threw the rope too far 
  • You were clothes-lined (this is also a common question of well-meaning adults) 
  •  My mom said you shouldn’t play with knives... 
  • You were wearing a hoody and you jumped off the playground equipment, but your hood got caught and you just dangled there until someone helped you out of your sweatshirt. *shrug* It happened to my brother once…
*I can’t make this stuff up!  I’ve tried!  Also, when I worked at the daycare it became, unintentionally a favorite story.  Sometimes a preschooler would climb on my lap and request “Miss Anika, will you tell us the story about how you got that thing on your neck?” And then she would summon the others…  I mean, it IS a good story…

I think this synopsis needs to end with the reality that even though I love my scar… I wasn’t always okay with it.  Even when I got past the “make it go away” and found myself relatively attached to it, it also made kind of insecure.  People were/are sometimes weird around my scar.  I can sometimes get weird (unintentionally) around my scar…like it turns darker red when I’m stressed or struggling, and I cover it when I’m feeling vulnerable or overwhelmed…  It left this looming of question of “will people accept me with my scar?”  Not in spite of or despite my scar but with it.  Not because they are able to look past it but because it was so much part of my picture.  It’s no longer the burning question – mostly because I have friends who are stinking amazing…

I was honored to stand in a wedding for dear friends of mine the summer after my second surgery.  That meant that my scar was red, bumpy and noticeable to boot!  I fretted about how I didn’t want attention to be on my scar (for me or others) on their special day.  An older friend said she had some great coverup samples and told me to experiment with them, use what worked, and later give back the rest.  I found one that nearly completely faded it!  BUT it didn’t erase it.  In the end, it was okay.   My newly married friends came and visited around the holidays and brought their wedding album which I had made it into as a member of the bridal party.  My dear friend said, “did I tell you what happened?”  “No…” I replied (trying to figure out if I should tell her I forgot to take my white hair tie off my wrist and it was in like every photo).  She responded “my photographers called when editing photos and said they noticed one of my bridesmaids had a pretty noticeable scar and asked if we wanted it edited out.  I told them ‘no’ and that it was something I loved about you.”  [I told them about the hair tie then because I was a little irritated they could edit out my scar but not my awkward white “bracelet”].  Sometimes when I’m in a funk where I don’t like my scar, or just need to be reminded of the incredible people in my life, I think of this story and tear a little.  I am SO grateful for friends such as these!

So, I raise my glass and toast to the past…because it’s been a hilarious ride!  Happy 10th Birthday my old friend!  Cheers! 

It's just a sewing tracer! Promise!

After Surgery #1
After Surgery #2 (This is my "I just one a goldfish!"picture)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

10 Years Later and Here I Am

Today is my 10-Year Cancer-Versary.

It was December 26, 2007…the microwave clock read 5:17…when the doctor who had done the biopsy only a handful of days before called to let me know that the results were exactly opposite of what he expected.  At the time the most common demographic for thyroid cancer was women over 40 from who had a “Pacific Island” ethnicity…primarily those who had been exposed to a significant degree of radiation. I am…female. So, I had that going for me.  Up to 50% of Americans are expected to have spots on the thyroid. In 2007, approximately 5% of the spots were suspicious and far less were cancerous.  Statistically, thyroid cancer wasn’t really something I, a 19-year-old college sophomore, should have had to worry about.  But there it was. 

And 10 years later, here I am. 

It was part of my picture all through Sophomore and Junior years of college. It lingered (without a surgery or radiation attempt) into my Senior year.  My bloodwork said to hold tight until the remaining cells either died or grew. I felt like a time bomb until 2011 when my bloodwork said I was finally free. 

10 years later, and here I am. 

Cancer is part of my history, my story, but not part of my days.  If it weren’t for the occasional questions about my slightly faded 6 ½ inch scar and the need to mark yes when asked “have you had any kind of cancer” when donating blood, there are many days I wouldn’t think about it at all. 

But here I am. My heart and mind a muddle of memories from the last ten years.

I was trying to decide how to commemorate the last 10 years.  A post seemed obvious as it was during my first processings with cancer that my blog was begun.  In those days my fingers flowed over a keyboard, trying to keep up with the way my brain just wouldn’t stop. And yet…how does one commemorate something like cancer?  Do you?  It’s not typically something you necessarily celebrate…

Still, here I am.

So much has changed.  Yesteryear feels like yesterday today and yet no part of me could have imagined that this is where life would bring me.  And still…I know that where I am is, in many respects, a direct result of the role cancer played in my life.  For good or for bad, I am who I am because of the journey which began a decade ago… People don’t typically celebrate cancer, but, I suppose, in a way I do.  Cancer sucks.  I wish it upon no one – not my worst enemy.  But I am sitting here puzzling over the last ten years and knowing that, given the choice, I would not erase it from my past.  I wouldn’t change the story.  I would again allow something so painful and hard to be in a place for God to work in me and through me and around me.  To see the way God’s strength was and is made perfect in my imperfection.

And maybe that’s enough.  That realization is enough.  Yet, with a head and heart full of memories, I’ve decided to commemorate my 10-Year-Cancer-Versary with 10 of the things I feel like cancer has taught me in the last 10 years.  The pieces which have, in some way, shaped me and continue in their own ways to influence who I am and who I’m becoming.  Some of them are specific to [my] cancer.  Some I think apply to many “hard things” and “painful storms”.  All of them leave me giving thanks for the places I’ve been, the place I find myself, and the way God continues to be the Beauty in my storms… 

10 Things I’ve Learned from Cancer Over the Last 10 Years…

1. Time doesn’t heal all wounds…but it does lessen the force of impact.  Fall semester of my Junior year, with another surgery on the schedule and more questions with answers unknown, a professor spoke of his good friend, for whom days were limited as cancer ravaged his body.  My hand immediately went to my scar (a common occurrence which I later realized I did when I felt vulnerable – like I had to protect the rawest part of me), my breathing quickened, and my head started to spin.  I remember that I was standing and that I wished I could sit down without drawing attention to myself.  The idea of cancer consumed me.  A movie with a cancer plotline could leave me in pieces.  A book with cancer left me out of sorts for days and wide awake at night.  But they don’t anymore. There are times when I am still deeply affected.  For the most part, however, there is now just a light sting where the gut wrenching inner destruction used to be.  There is something beautiful about the way God uses the richness of life to slowly but surely begin to heal the places that hurt.

2. Life changes.  If you’re hoping that you can be a 20-year-old college student who has classes to take, grades to make, extracurriculars to pursue, a job to keep, and an identity to preserve…who merely happens to also have cancer, you might be a little crazy.  And you might be me.  I was so convinced that the best kind of kid with cancer was the kind of kid who acted like she didn’t have cancer at all!  While God taught me SO much when life crashed in on me, it crashed it harder than it may have had to because I was secretly convinced that nothing needed to change. I wish I would have been more open to the inevitable change so that I could have helped direct the reconstruction.  Instead there are still a couple pieces out of place!   What’s the modern beatitude? “Blessed is the flexible for they won’t be bent out of shape?” For good or bad, I’m not the person I was on December 25th of 2017.  Sometimes I miss the old Anika.  Our cores are the same though…the Anika I am and the Anika I was.  Life changes.  It’s gonna be okay. 

3. It’s okay to have hard days.  It’s okay to question.  It’s okay to doubt.  It’s okay to know one thing in your head but feel another one in your reality...  It’s okay to know God is as near as my next breath and still scream into the darkness, asking Him to show up.   I caught a lot of flak – especially early on – at my Christian Liberal Arts school where questions and doubts were a sign of spiritual weakness and a deteriorating relationship with God.  REAL Christians ALWAYS had the joy of the Lord and NEVER were angry at God or enquiring or unsure… But they are.  Real Christians are real humans – and as such have real feelings and real emotions that require real responses.  I didn’t want to go through Christian-ese motions... I wanted my faith to be real – one that didn’t say “God is good!” because I should but because amidst life that wasn’t, I could search and find and know God’s goodness amidst the pain.  I wanted to be to walk through hard stuff and come out on the other end knowing the God I serve is big enough to handle my questions, my doubts, my fight, my storm, and me... And somehow, through it all, God reveals Himself nearer than ever before… 

4. The reality of cancer is hard to digest…especially for other people.  Cancer has this awesome way of affecting absolutely everything.  Health and identity and relationships. And when that effect is felt by those around you, some will rally.  The others will flee.  It used to bother me that so many “left”, that when I needed people the most (but couldn’t always articulate that need), I looked around to find previously occupied presences gone.  The reality is…many just don’t know what to do.  For reasons valid and not.  There is a sense of guilt (they are healthy and you’re not); there is a fear and uncertainty around the idea and the future and the pieces; there is a realization that the role you played in their life has suddenly and drastically changed; there is a lack of knowledge of what to say or do or be, a helplessness… And so, they leave. Does knowing this mean it didn’t hurt?  Not a bit.  Do I think it was my job to help them grieve and cope?  No.  I couldn’t even if I had wanted to!  Have I been the friend on the other side of hard stuff that wonders about the balance between presence and space, perceived need and actual need, their grief and my own?  Yeah. It’s not easy.  Things like cancer are hard.  There are people who, to this day, take a step back when they learn I once had cancer. It’s not something everyone can handle.  Cancer was hard for me to stomach.  But it was hard for those who cared about me too…  

5. If you want to be a good friend, be present and listen.  Show up.  Do things that don’t involve whatever painful thing is going on in her life (because life is already about it).  But be willing to get in the trenches too (because there are times when she will be dying to talk about it and feel like no one wants to hear about it).  Give her space when needed without getting offended.  Learn the phrases “do you want to talk about it?” and “is this a time you want me to give advice and feedback or do you just want me to listen?”  Don’t answer all the questions.  Don’t tell her she has no reason to question or doubt.  Tell her instead that God is big enough for questions and doubts.  Ask what God is teaching amidst the storm.  Help her look for joy.  It’s not an easy job.  I would like to think that cancer has helped me see with different eyes, hear past my ears, and love beyond platitudes.  I’ve tried to be the friend I needed.  I often fail.  But I would rather fail than not have tried.  

6. Not everyone gets the whole story.  This is twofold…a “gets” in terms of reception and in terms of comprehension.  It is ALWAYS a journey to decide how much people get to know about the truest pieces of you.  There are times I overshared.  There were times at the beginning when God was giving me glimpses of Him amidst the crazy and I would spill them to anyone who would listen.  And there were times I didn’t want to share at all.  At the beginning people would find out about “cancer” and would want to know…how I found out, how I was doing, how I was “feeling”.  I hated that question: “How are you feeling?”  I was attending classes fulltime.  I kept my on-campus job.  For many onlookers, I was any normal college sophomore/junior.  When someone asked how I was feeling, it was almost always a polite way of making a surface level connection.  When I responded in kind with a surface level, “tired but okay…good…making life happen…one day at a time…” it was almost always followed by a “well, I’ll be praying for you!” before turning and walking away.  Most never asked beyond my “okay”.  I became protective of my story to save it from the people who didn’t truly care.   And so there were times – many over the last ten years – where people would find out I had cancer and a piece of me would scream on the inside, secretly pleading with the other to ask.  Wishing they would be a safe place to tell my story.  My story isn’t a secret.  But not everyone needs it.  Some I share with don’t get it.  And they won’t.  It’s okay.  Sometimes God nudges me to share with someone I honestly think could care less.  Sometimes I listen to that prod.  Sometimes I share a little.  Sometimes a lot. And over the years, some people have come to know the whole story.  And they get it.  And they get me. It’s an incredible gift. 

7. "Cancer” is a deep layer and I am in charge of protecting the way others respond. While not everyone gets the whole story, it was still my reality. It has become a natural part of my story.  For me, simply stating I had cancer is like saying I also had a dog – who died.  Is it a little sad?  Sure.  Is that declaration deep?  Not for me.  For me, that’s a pretty surface level disclosure. For others, simply saying “I” and “cancer” in the same sentences sounds like I’m bearing my soul.  They aren’t ready to respond to perceived deep layer with one of their own.  (It’s the onion principle of mutual communication). Sometimes I hold off on sharing cancer because I don’t want to scare people away. Sometimes I guard the truth to protect others. When I worked at camp or in the schools and kids would ask me about my scar, I would tell them about the thyroid and how important it is and let them know mine was “really sick”.  Because a word like cancer is scary.  And not every person is in a place to emotionally handle the baggage attached with it.  Some say it’s not my job.  But cancer isn’t just about me…  

8. In the midst of storms, always look for reasons to laugh.  Cancer can be funny!  Do you get to make fun of cancer?  Not without an “in” (aka: a relationship with someone with cancer who participates in the humor and says it’s okay).  Could I?  Yes.  But only of my own (unless given an in with another individual).  And under those parameters, it’s not only okay but even healthy.  One of the greatest balms to my soul early on came in the friends who would joke about cancer and my scar and the ridiculousness of things with me.  I wasn’t dying!  Let’s laugh about being radioactive and the “cancer card” and pity puppy eyes.  I had a resident in my building during my senior year of college with a prosthetic.  The two of us could laugh until our sides hurt exchanging the stories we’d encountered, experienced, and (upon occasion) provoked.  I was most okay with cancer when I could laugh about it… 

9. The un-surrendered life isn’t worth living.  Henry Nouwen tells the story of a women who was committed to a facility for the sake of her mental health.  For her safety she had to be stripped of everything in her possession.  In the end, she clutched something in her hand so tightly her nails dug into the flesh of her palm.  Hours later when, finally, they managed to loosen her grip, there was single coin.  Of almost no value.  Nouwen talks of how we do this with God.  How we hold onto things which have no value and it keeps us from opening our hands to the One who wishes to fill them. Ultimate surrender asks us to hold everything we hold dear in open hands and let go that we may take hold.  Hold of the hand of the One who already holds our hopes and dreams, hurts and fears.  Surrender, is ultimately about trust.  It’s terrifying. But it’s worth it…  

10.  God is Faithful.  When people ask me what cancer taught me, I respond with three words: God is faithful.  It’s one of those phrases that explains everything and yet I can’t explain it. All I know is that God is faithful.  That it is He who sustains.  It is He who guides.  It is He who exists as the purpose amidst something without.  God is faithful.  When the rest of the world slips away, He is constant. God is good.  God is present.  And His faithfulness gives way to hope.  “Yet this I call to mind and so I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning.  Great is Your faithfulness!” (Lam 3)

    10 years later and still I am here.  And by the grace of God, go I. 

One Year and A Lifetime Ago - AK 2008

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


From the Anika archives: March 2008

Sometimes desperately frustrated by how far away God felt...longing and yearning for a connection to my Savior...I would close my eyes and simply beg God to show up.  At times there was silence and I would feel no answer at all.  Occasionally there would the remnant of a verse I’d almost forgotten or the briefest whisper of affirmation...the quiet knowledge that God was not as far away as I may have thought.  And every so often my pleas were answered with the vividness of reality playing out before my eyes and in my heart, with the reassurance God has been waiting for me to beg Him to show up...

I am looking. Searching.  Like a game of hide-and-seek where I am the seeker.  The sun is bright and the day beautiful.  I move deliberately, slowly, almost as if I am walking on tiptoes – trying not to make any noise as I look one way, and then the other…behind that tree, in that thicket of flowers.  I bite my bottom lip with a mischievous grin.  The look on my face screams: “You’re not hiding from me, You’re hiding for me.  You are giving me a reason to seek; I just have to keep looking.  This is just a game…” 

But time passes and the sun is not quite so high in the sky.  The flowers are tall on both sides of me and I do not have a good view of the path or expanse of land in either direction.  This no longer feels like a game; this is no longer enjoyable. My breathing quickens; the smile drops from my face.  “Where are You?  Why are You hiding for me anyway?” 

Silence.  I nearly scream into the air but there is no answer.  I begin to walk away.  My pace accelerates and my seeking becomes more of a frantic search.  The branches snap underneath of feet as I walk quickly down the path.  With a quivering voice I shout again.  “I can’t find You!”  My words reverberate off the trees but again there is no answer.   The wind blows and I shiver.  I am cold...alone...desperate.   

And so I start running.  The path is narrow, almost non-existent, and the brush catches me from all sides.  My arms and legs are becoming scratched and bruised.  I continue to run.  A fallen tree limb snags the flesh on my leg.  A branch above slams into my forehead.  While I am conscious of the pain – the blood trickling down my leg, the sudden pounding in my head - I do not have time to stop and see what caused and is causing my pain.  I no longer care.  All I know is that it hurts.  And so I keep running.  Pushing the flowers and branches out of my way, I am dying... dying to know where You are. 

Breathing heavily, I feel myself begin to give up hope.  It is too hard to continue to run; there is no use continuing to try…  And my run becomes a jog and my jog becomes a weary pant.  I am just barely moving and I cannot go on anymore.  As I slow the back of my hand reaches to brush my tousled hair out of my face.  My cheek is wet and I realize I am crying.  My walk slows further, so slow I am just barely moving, and I fall.  My attempts to move are that of a crawl and I am no longer crying, I am sobbing.  I can go no further.  And so, I stop all together.  I have nothing left to give, nothing to go on. 

I sit on the cold ground and am vaguely aware that is all but dusk as my face falls onto my scarred arms.  I bawl.  Salty tears fall into the fresh cuts on my hands and I wince as my arm brazes the raw bump on my head.  “Where are You?”  I whimper.  “You promised if I were to go looking, I would find You.  What happened?  Are you really hiding from me? I can’t see you if You’re not here…”  And my body convulses as I collapse.

And then, just then, You’re there.  Gently, tenderly, You pick me up and place my head on Your shoulder even as I am still sobbing.  You rub my back softly and whisper in my ear:  “Ssshhh... It’s alright.  Just rest.  I’ve got you.  That’s right. Lay your head on my shoulder and rest…” 

My convulsing stops and just a few sobs cause me to shake as my breathing slows.  I lift my head and look into your eyes, “I couldn’t find You…and now I’m dirty and scratched and…” I choke back more tears and am ready to again hide my eyes in Your shoulder when I see them.  There, in the corner of Your eyes, are tears of Your own.

And with Your free hand, You take Your thumb and wipe the tear out of the corner of Your eye.  Your thumb, still wet from Your tear, moves from Your eyes to mine as You use it to wipe the streams from my tear-stained cheeks.  And then I know.  While I was looking for You, You had been waiting, looking for me too.  Your hands rub over my gashes, wounds, bumps, and scars and heal my hurts. The warmness of Your touch overwhelms me.  I would be scarred again and again to be held as I am now being held.  Because in Your arms, in Your eyes, I am perfect, I am Yours, I am found.

And You kiss my forehead as it nestles into Your neck.  With feeling and emotion in Your voice you again whisper into my ear:  “Relax my daughter.  You are safe.  You have fought and you have found.  I have you and I will not let you go.  Just rest…”

Psalm 13...

Monday, July 24, 2017

Rearranging, Readjusting, Rerouting...and Whether I Give it or Not

It’s hard to believe that, as I sit and begin to type these words, it was a week ago that I endeavored to take a group of teens on a local “backyard” mission trip.   It’s hard to believe that it has already been a week since the insanity which still has me shaking my head – and yawning.

It was a trip “doomed” from the beginning…a celebration of Murphy’s Law at its finest.  If it could go wrong, it did.  Sometimes in multiple ways!

Here is the backstory with just a few of the highlights of this endeavor…
  • November: Anika gets hired as District Youth Coordinator (works with 66 churches in the district to help their youth ministries be viable).
  • Before November is up: Anika has been approached by several distinct churches about doing a “backyard” (local) mission trip as was done a few years prior.
  • By the first of the year: Anika sends out information in her bi-weekly newsletter, looking for interest.  Enough interest is garnered to proceed.
  • By the end of February: Mission Trip flier makes it into every newsletter.  Individual fliers with information are emailed to every contact.  Individual letters are mailed to every church.  Church specific emails are sent to the initially interested parties.
  • By the end of May: one church is committed with zero interest from every other church in the District 

But it was going to be good.  The one church happened to be my own.  The youth happened to be individuals I attempt to invest in on a normal basis.  Teens I thoroughly enjoy.  And their youth leader was not only on board but more excited than I was!  It was nice not to have to try to plan and execute another district event on my own. We would be a small group, but the ducks were so perfectly ordered they could have marched in an infantry!

Fast forward… amidst the insanity of starting classes back up, of trying to put in hours for my other job, of trying to invest in people (including my new nephew and his mom and dad), of trying some reasonable amount of self-care (aka: sleeping for more than a few hours at night) …suddenly the mission trip snuck up out of nowhere.  With it came instant stress.  But it was going to be fine.  Because my ducks were off in the corner doing synchronized baton routines.  Plus, I expressed with deep satisfaction, how my schedule was an accordion – plenty of room for ebb and flow, for flexibility. 

And then my ducks went AWOL.  Not a single one reported for duty. 

It was a little bit of everything you could possibly imagine. 

My youth leader – my precious partner-in-crime and the reason my sanity was still in check – got sick.  I rearranged.  I readjusted.  I rerouted.  I did the last-minute shopping.  I recruited a helper for food prep. Shoot! Half of my youth even showed up in time to eat leftovers!  I mean, they weren’t much help but the spirit was there!

Storms came.  Awesome storms.  With the prospect of more awesome storms.  I rearranged.  I readjusted.  I rerouted.  We delayed leave time.  I created no less than four back up plans.  We set up camp with hardly a sprinkle.

My beloved youth leader was still fantastically sick.  My other adults weren’t available until late that night – per the duck plan.  I had a dozen kids and two vehicles and only one me to transport. I rearranged.  I readjusted.  I rerouted.  I made several calls and was about to get to my “maybe a parent can help…” list when my sister came in and saved all kinds of days (on account of her own AWOL ducks).

The magnificent thunderstorms kept us up much of the night – and cancelled the partnership we had scheduled for the Thursday.  With the help of my now present adult leaders… we rearranged, we readjusted, we rerouted.  We found a new place to invest.  We moved some of Friday to Thursday.  People who had no idea we existed were blessed. 

Friday came with a giant question mark.  I was physically and mentally incapable of rerouting one more time but we had to…because we used Friday’s projects on Thursday.  With the help of my adult leaders…we rearranged, we readjusted, we rerouted.  And then we did it again when the agenda items which shouldn’t have changed, did.  And we had some extra time for community and fun. And people who had no reason to expect anything from anyone were blessed.

And Saturday came and I gave my youth both the Friday night and Saturday morning pep talk…of how the day would go and what I needed from them and that I wanted them to remember who they were and Whose they were.  It was the guaranteed part of the schedule – set in stone, the only piece not open to the accordion.  The free family carnival came and the carnival left and maybe 50 of the 400-expected people came and we spent the day rearranging, readjusting, and rerouting… And the church we partnered with (who couldn’t have pulled anything off without my group) made plans for next year and started reworking ideas and weekends and potential with hope and excitement…

By this point I am not angry.  I am not even upset.  But I am discouraged.  I spent months and put dozens and dozens of hours into a trip I wanted to bless a group of teens and bless a community and bless God.  I was told from the get-go by my superiors that it wasn’t worth attempting and there were too many problems and it just wouldn’t work.  I had stood then with my ever-decreasing list of churches and committed youth and said, “but it is still worth it!”  And now I stood wearily with the 350 unopened prize bags I was packaging neatly into a box and saying, “so much for proving ya’ll wrong…”

I took a deep breath and tried not to get frustrated – mostly with myself.  I had been honest with my team about times where I was disappointed and even overwhelmed by the change of plans.  I desperately sought to make sure my stress didn’t affect how I interacted with them and I praised them for their willingness to go with the flow and serve with joyful hearts.  But now I was tired.  And I could do absolutely no more rerouting.  And I just didn’t know how to pray any more fervently or work any harder for an event which had seemingly nose-dived into the concrete…

And I watched my teens stand in goofy costumes waving viciously at cars passing by… If they were embarrassed, it didn’t show.  They were joyful and energetic. 

And I listened as one of my youth said “where are the people running games?  There are only like three kids here but they deserve to have a good time!”

And I questioned our “bonus youth” (the only one connected to another district church) who stood with the largest, most ridiculous smile on his face, as he informed me that this week - which he had entered into hesitantly – was one of the best of his life.

And I thought back to the fervor my teens put into serving people, (who had no idea they were going to be served!), to the joy and laughter they put into menial tasks which were never part of the plan (and seemingly less “important” than the ones scheduled) – how proud I was of them.

And I considered the fact that while there were a (very) few reminders to rally and to “step it up” in maturity, I never once had to deal with inter-group behavior because they genuinely enjoyed being together…they served in community and out of their community.

And I giggled as they all went up for children’s time at the church we visited (something they always do with the little ones at their home church) to the encouragement and delight of the congregation…

And I near teared as I watched them, without any known instruction or guidance (or adult invitation!), circle up on the church lawn, with their parents waiting in the parking lot, for their own time of prayer before parting ways. 

And I sat, alone, in a very full car in an empty parking lot, for several minutes after everyone had left.  Without warning, I cried violently for several minutes.  It was odd and out of place until I considered the fact that, for the first time in nearly a week, I didn’t have to have my brave face on for my teens and the pressure of needing to be director, leader, mentor, friend, cook, alarm clock, and liaison on a constantly rearranged, readjusted, and rerouted schedule, released in one fellow swoop.

I shook my head (but not my fist) as I drove the mile back to my parents’ house to unpack my car and get started on homework. 

You see, on Wednesday, before I would know the extent of the rearranging, readjusting, and rerouting ahead of me, I had chatted with my friend, the mom of a couple of my teens. After mutually agreeing that despite the wrinkles (thus far!) everything would be fine, I proclaimed half-heartedly and with slightly clenched teeth “God will get the glory whether I want to give it to Him or not!” 

Without the hint (but still the lingering stench) of the irony which so often characterizes my life, I started the homework I was terribly behind on.  It just so happened to include a conversation about the glory of God and how clearly in the Gospels individuals were ready to give Jesus glory for the things which they had expected from Him but how the true glory of God was manifested in the least glorifying way – a criminal’s death.  How whether the glory due God was being given or not, it was being made known. 

I taught and praised my teens.  I encouraged them to dig into their bibles, to think critically about what it meant to be on a mission in service and leadership and outreach.  I was SO proud of them SO many times for the way they took life by the horns and served with joy and hospitality and God’s love.  I thanked God multiple times for my teens.  I don’t remember thanking God for the trip.  I told my youth “do this for Jesus” and we talked about what that meant…  I thanked God for protection and provision and projects.  But I also gift-horsed them as I made sure He knew that while they were “fine”, they weren’t my ducks or my plans. 

The truth is, I didn’t want to give God the glory.  In the stress and chaos inside my head, no part of me wanted to pause and declare God’s goodness for it.  “Thanks for this change of plans, again!  I am tired and overwhelmed and at a loss for my next move and you get the glory for it all!”  I couldn’t say it without sarcasm… 

However, I was leaving out the “but”.  I love to tell my youth how often in scripture the “but of the matter is the heart of the matter”.  What comes first is important, what comes after the “but” is the heart of what is being said.  “God, you get the glory.  These were not my plans, but….”

But…You provided.
But…You protected.
But…You sustained.
But…conversations were had. was built.
But…people were served.
But…people were blessed.
But…a congregation was encouraged.
But…Your name was made known.
But…my teens (whether they realize it yet or not) grew in understanding of You…
But…you WILL get the glory whether I decide to give it or not…

My list of “buts” could and likely should go on.  Though this was written a week post our leave, it is being posted a week post our return.  It was originally written as a set of my own reflections.  My own way of putting into right perspective and attitude the reality of the experience.  Experiences should always be considered in light of the inherent reality of God’s goodness.   If there is anything other than my reflections here for your, that is alone for you to decide.  I do, however, pray that my life is a testament to the reality of the glory of God.  That I choose to give it all circumstances.  Whether I want to or not.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I was 11, maybe 12.  We were still at the Hersey Church and it was Communion Sunday. 

In the United Methodist Church, we have an “open table”.  Meaning you don’t have to be a member to take communion and anyone who professes Jesus as Savior and Lord may partake.  Parents often use this as a teaching opportunity as they walk forward with their young children.  Such was the case with young Tommy Johnson on this particular Sunday.

The Johnson family always sat in the very back row of that rather small church.  And they had about 100 kids.  Or so it seemed.  In reality they fostered many children and adopted out of the foster care system and cared for the ones otherwise “left behind”.  It is probably why they sat in the back have an easy escape route.  Tommy, at the time their youngest...fostered and later adopted, was memorable.  Probably because he was only a year or so older than Gabe, my youngest brother.  That and because of one fateful Communion Sunday.

Per usual, Tommy’s parents had taken him in arm to the front for communion.  Pastor Dad leaned in with special words just for him as three (or so) year-old Tommy ate the small chunk of bread with juice.  And then began the long journey to return to the back row.

They hadn’t made it more than half way back when Tommy screamed boldly through feisty squirms. The organ music continued in the background as Tommy bellowed loudly enough for the deafest congregant to hear...


Most people looked with wide eyes; shocked out of their reverent moment if nothing else.  There were a few giggles (okay, mostly from my row of siblings).  His mom looked mortified as she quietly scolded him and moved faster down the side aisle.  The organ continued without missing a note and communion with it.  But my 11 or 12 year old brain had locked in.  Locked in to words truer than young Tommy’s mind could have possibly meant or understood.

Tommy was responding to an intrinsic need.  Hunger.  Nearing noon, that delicious crouton sized bread chunk was a reminder that lunch should be happening.  Soon.  He fought backwards and upside down trying to get back – back to where just a taste was enough to remind him of his need.  His want.  His desire.  A want and desire and need real enough to proclaim loudly and boldly about what, indeed, he was fighting for...

He had a point there.  Communion as a sacrament can be very ritualistic, even routine as a reminder of supreme importance. But broken down to its basic premise?  To have but a mere taste of Christ and to leave satisfied?  The idea is nearly preposterous.  Yet, as a body of believers we would be doing well if leaving satisfied after experiencing the reality of Christ was limited to only communion. 

It’s not.

I suppose there is some essence in which we recognize God as more than enough.  Jesus tells us that in terms of spiritual hunger and thirst – He himself is the bread of life (John 6:35). He sustains, fulfills, and is far more than we could ever ask or require.  We recognize this best at the depth of need.  But even then – we come to God empty and are thankful to be full.  Who defines “full”?  Often...we do. We’re complacent consumers. Too many of us come for just what we think we need and leave resembling not as someone even filled to the measure but rather one with superior self-control on a no-sugar diet at a Christmas cookie tasting. We claim to be full even though we are left wanting. Or maybe it’s just me.  I’m not insatiable.  I’m not longing. I think I’m satisfied but what I am is self-decidedly full even though I should still be hungry... 

When I was in Uganda the locals treated us as honored guests and they would heap food on our plates.  It was one of the first days in country and one of the few guys on our trip responded to another helping in a very American way: “No! No thank you! I am so full!”  The hostess walked away politely. And then she later came back and offered the same gentleman something else, but something more. He was so confused as he again tried to explain that he was very full.  Our professor, someone who had spent considerable time in Africa, looked at us and said “never say ‘I’m full’; instead always say ‘I am satisfied’ when you’ve had enough...” In the states to lean back with hands on stomach and pronounce ourselves “so full!” is a compliment.  In Uganda it was quite rude.  Our professor explained that to say we were full was a way of saying we wanted no more – but it was almost like saying it wasn’t very good.  Likely, in attempts to redeem themselves, the hostess would try to serve something again to make sure you left satisfied.  To be satisfied to was to have enjoyed the meal to its fullness (not ours) and to indicate that what we had was so good we required no more and no less. 

How often, under such a distinction, do we leave the presence of God decidedly satisfied when really, we are, at best, full?

To leave satisfied... A perfect compliment for a generous meal. To be perfectly filled to the measure of the fullness of all something has to offer...  I think of this often and find it fantastic for many things.  But not for God.  To be satisfied comes with a measure and limitations...

As a human I am limited.  I can go to God and find myself full.  I have reached my limit.  But I can never truly be satisfied.  To be satisfied would be to experience God in His fullness and it’s something I am incapable of... 

When I first started toying with this thought process, it felt wrong.  “Surely God satisfies!” I declared thinking of the ways in which God reveals Himself as more than enough... And then I realized what a box that put Him in. “No! No! He doesn’t and He shouldn’t!” When did I, when did we, become “okay” with being satisfied with God?  When did we think to ourselves “ah yes, of God I have had enough! Am I not blessed?” We proclaim it honestly enough and often without a hint of mal-intent.  But it is a shame.  For of God we will only scratch the surface...

At one of the camps I was at this summer there was one chorus sang every night around the fire... “Set a fire down in my soul that I can’t contain, that I can’t control.  I want more of you God. I want more of you God...”

The words routinely struck me: “...that I can’t contain, that I can’t control....”

The thing with fires is that they are NEVER satisfied.  A fire will burn as long as there is fuel.  In fact, the right fuel at the right time will cause it to burn bigger and brighter and bolder.  A fire that doesn’t want?  Isn’t fueled?  It’s dead.  A true fire, an alive fire burns.  Endlessly. I think of the forest fires fought out west...  Those are fires which were and could not be satisfied.  They couldn’t be contained or controlled.  The more it was fed, the more it wanted. More and more....

Is that now how it should be with out relationship with Christ?  The more we are fed the more we should want.  More and more.  To be given just a single taste and proclaim with Tommy’s gusto: “I’m still hungry! I want more and more and more.  Beyond what I contain and what I can control.  I want more of you and refused to be satisfied...”

The Psalmist cries out over and over how he longs for God....

“As a deer pants for streams of water so my soul longs for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42)

“I stretch out my hands to You; my soul longs for You, as a parched land..." (Psalm 143)

God is SO much more than who I am and what know and what I think.  And when I realize I can never truly be satisfied, I start fighting.  Backwards and upside down just trying to get back – back to where just a taste is enough to remind me of my need. My want. My desire.  A want and desire and need real enough to proclaim loudly and boldly about what or rather who it is I am fighting for...

“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.  Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will up my hands...” - Psalm 63:1-4

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bookshelves for a Fox Den


I literally day dream about bookshelves.

I was thinking black but I’m currently in love with sandalwood.  The black would be sharp but the sandalwood...that I could get to match the black/tan of my bedroom or the browns that will undoubtedly be part of my living room. I would like them tall – but not too tall. Sturdy but not expensive. I want them to be classy but practical and functional – extraordinarily so!

And then I begin to plan how my books will be placed on them.  I would love to go merely alphabetically but that is just not feasible.  I can’t split topics apart in order to put them in alphabetical order.  But to put them by topics or genre could split authors and I rather like the idea of having all of one author together in one place... It’s conflicting.

I don’t daydream about bookshelves because of a passion for interior decorating.

It’s not even because I have run out of space on some current shelves.

And, believe it or not, it’s not because I’m a book nerd.  I mean, I am but it’s not why I want shelves.

I want shelves because of what they would represent in my life.  Namely...stability. 

You see, I have boxes and boxes of books.  Several for being 28 and living in my parents’ basement.  I love to read and learn. And I do go back to previous reads and books. Not only do I go back, I struggle – truthfully – with whether I can justify rereading books and series I’ve already been through and love (and miss...I find myself missing fictional characters I haven’t spent time with in years) when there are so many books in the world and even several in my own collection which I have not yet read. 

But all of the books are in boxes. Packed and tucked away and not nearly as accessible as I would like them.  In fact, with grad school part of my life’s picture for the last year and a half, I have only had one or two classes where I didn’t open two or three boxes to pull out books I could use in reference.  I hate taking books out of boxes and having to guess where titles I know I have can be found. Even more, I hate when everything is said and done, putting it back in that box.

I want my books on a shelf.  Displayed. Accessible.  Able to be taken off and returned.  Able to be read one at a time without having to preplan which three to take out of the box and later attempt to fit back in... 

I could explain – in detail – about my attempts for bookcases and reasons for not obtaining one.  Often my space was too small for a single bookcase, (as if a single bookcase would suffice!) And where I have had space or could potentially make isn’t mine.  The space that is? It is temporary.  I can’t put bookcases in temporary locations – it would make more sense to store them. If I’m storing books AND shelves? we’re just getting ridiculous!

Bookshelves can go up when they have a place to be. When I have a place to be. When I’m home.  Somehow, in my mind, bookshelves have become the symbol of “home”.

As a pastor’s kid with several moves and the inability to ever truly put down roots – roots are something I crave.  The question “Where are you from? What is your hometown?” is my least favorite question.  In the right/wrong context, it’s made me upset. “Why does it matter what my hometown is? Who cares? What is it going to do?”  The question in and of itself is simple enough: “Where did you/do you come from? What place shaped you and launched you?”  It shouldn’t be that hard.  But I don’t have an answer. “Nowhere? And everywhere?” or “Michigan?” It’s always a question and people always look at me funny and say either “that’s a state...” or “okay, but where in Michigan?”  “Well I live in... But it’s not actually where I’m from... I grew up in a few places... My parents live...  I’ll be ___ in/for a couple weeks/months...”  

The question really being asked is... “Where is home?”

And I don’t know.

If I knew...I could go buy some bookcases. 

I was trying to explain all of this to someone at the beginning of the summer.  I had just finished my two temporary part-time jobs.  I was/am job searching again.  I was being asked for the millionth time what I hoped to do; what I wanted... 

I told them I wanted bookshelves. 

That I was willing to pursue a lot of nothing – if the nothing meant not uprooting my life every six to nine months (which is basically what I’ve done consistently in the six years since graduation) – to get them. 

I said these things before an anticipated eight week hiatus from...well...everything. Jobs finished. School break. I hoped to accomplish a lot and to have the time to move on to bigger and better things.  I wanted to transition during those eight weeks...into something of the semi-permanent sort, something real.  Any extra time? I would be busy but with living instead of life.  I anticipated being able to just be. 

The joke, of course, was on me.  If I am going to start the summer by articulating a longing for book shelves and anticipating the feasibility to obtain them... of course that will mean I have the least stable summer in the books. 

I finished my spring grad class.  Went to counsel/teach at family camp.  Was roped into deaning/nursing/leading programming for a camp #2 the next week.  I turned around to go down state where I had a dentist appointment, spoke in Fort Wayne, visited friends. I made it north just in time to return to camp #1 to counsel for another camp I was roped into. I turned around the next day to head down to camp #3/week 4 to help nurse for the camp my brother/future sister-in-law/friends were leading. I went from that week to counsel for day camp during a busy week at camp #4/week 5. A weekend in Ohio. A partial week at home base with projects and appointments and then back down to camp #4 to counsel day camp in another busy week – week 6 of camp. 

Sounds like stability, right?

For a summer where my eight week plan was to find and create stability – the actuality of what it became was a huge fail. 

I am pretty sure I have spent more time in my car than I have in my own bed. 

It was...good.  I wasn’t always excited about various adventures going in but I don’t regret any of my experiences. Still...I struggled. 

I struggled because the summer I wanted stability to be my end goal, contained anything but. 

I struggled because to have a place in the world, to lay roots, and to truly feel like a place is “home” is still a great longing...

I struggled because every time I paused in the midst of the chaos and thought about how exhausting my summer on the go was becoming and how much I longed to have a spot I belonged, a spot for bookshelves...the only verse, the only one, to come to mind is the one in which is Jesus talking to people who wish to follow Him and he replies not with a “yes” or “no” or “here are the three things you need to do/know to follow me”... He speaks in a near riddle of personal narrative.

“Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’” (Luke 9:58)

The cost of following Jesus means be willing to leave everything else behind. It means wandering into uncertain waters and unguaranteed futures.

It’s forced me to ask myself the hard question(s): “What if God calls you to be without a den, without a nest, without a place to lay your head? What if this summer of bouncing from place to place is somehow representative of the reality in the midst of the longing? What if you are being asked to be a houseplant...shallow roots but portable? What if you’ll never have a reason to buy a bookshelf? What then?”

Then I guess my books stay in their growing number of boxes. 

Which is a hard realization to swallow.  The job search is discouraging.  The road ahead is foggy at best.  I want to answer a call to follow in the same way those who wished to follow Jesus answered. “Okay. I’ll be right there. BUT, FIRST...” (see the surrounding verses of Luke 9)

I don’t know where God is taking me. I want to be faithful in following even if it means I never get a fox den or perfect sandalwood bookshelves.  When it comes to the “treasure” I think I want...Matthew 6:33 reminds me to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be added as well...” If God is my first longing either He will satisfy the other or re-direct them and re-orient them to what He wants them to be.

And in the meantime?  In the meantime I wait. I wait and hold to the passages and promises which speak to being faithful in the places I find myself and trusting in a story bigger than the one I could write for myself.  I’m reminded to be content – content in all and through all and regardless. (Philippians 4)

Regardless of whether or not I ever get my bookshelves.

But if I don't...I'm legit going to need a couple more boxes. The floor in my room is starting to look like a thrift store stock room... Just saying. 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"I Ate This Pickle For You!"

We had narrowly made it through an incredibly demanding week of camp; escaping within an inch of our lives – or so it felt!  With enough collective sleep on board to almost spell our names (a very mild exaggeration), I suggested lunch in town.  With a shrug and a collective “why not?”... we drove into a tourist town on a holiday weekend to eat lunch at a trademark restaurant. (We were tired and our judgment was perhaps a little...flawed...don’t judge us).

As we sat down at our table I turned to the two individuals who had kept me sane and alive all week (not even a mild exaggeration) and said “I have a very important question!”  I don’t know if my face was serious or if they were still in camp mode but both responded with a very direct “what do you need?” kind of answer. 

“Pickles. Fried pickles.  Do you like them? Do you eat them?  I really enjoy them and they are good here but they only come in like a million of them so if I am going to justify getting them then people have to eat them with me...”

Keli sort of chuckled and said she would commit to one or two. 

Laura’s responded with “Umm...We sell them at work but I’ve never tried them. I don’t really like pickles very much.  So I’m only good for one.”

It was all I needed to confirm my appetizer order.  It wasn’t until later that I realized the absurdity of this conversation.  I don’t remember the exact context in which it arose – large parts of the day, including the drive home, are rather a blur – but somehow it occurred to me/us that I had purchased fried pickles because Laura agreed to eat one – even though she doesn’t enjoy pickles.  Though she said it wasn’t too bad – she intentionally ate a pickle, when she knew she normally wouldn’t – because I said I need people to commit to eating them with me. 

“I ate this pickle for you!” became the humorously stated reality.  We laughed.  A lot actually. Small things seem very funny in the context of sleep deprivation.  “It’ll be the name of the book you write about this week” I proclaimed through chuckles. “I Ate This Pickle for You! Subtitle: And other things I did against my better judgment for Anika Kasper, A Memoir”.  We laughed more I’m pretty sure.

It was honest.  There was more than a little bit of truth in the reality of the absolute absurdity. “I don’t like pickles – so of course I’ll eat a pickle for you!”  She did it for me. 

Not that such a fact was surprising.  A week of camp planned on the fly while serving at another camp, accomplished by a very small team on very little sleep...Laura was a God send.  I asked how comfortable she would be as my left-hand woman*. And she ended up saying “yes” every time I asked if she’d be willing to do something...leading crafts everyday for all of our campers, even when we had already discussed the fact she really really didn’t want to and I wouldn’t make her (being a character in the skit), and before I could really ask and/or with little to no warning (entertaining with silly camp songs while I looked for a misplaced cabin).  It was a thing. 

Laura loves Jesus, loves kids, and loves camp – but she ate proverbial pickles for me all week.      

I realized I had been too.  But, though this will sound a little terrible, I did it for God. I did it for the things I felt like He was asking me to do...

I was asked to organize, program, and lead a week of camp on 72 hours notice.  I didn’t want to.  But I am too passionate about the power of camp and in the end that’s why I agreed.  I couldn’t stand the idea of 25 kids showing up at camp and having an experience where they couldn’t see Jesus on the mountaintop, let alone not be able to go to camp at all.  I ate a pickle.

We didn’t hardly have a staff.  Let alone a nurse (until Keli came in and saved the day!).  It was up to me.  I didn’t want to.  I especially didn’t want to get up at 2am (and sometimes also 4 or 5am...) to do a glucose check on one of our campers.  A first-time medically needy camper who repeated daily how this was the “best week of his life!” and on Friday night, when we all but ready to collapse, declared he “never wanted to leave”.  So I ate a pickle.

A group of boys insisted on pranking.  It was severely affecting a cabin of little girls. I didn’t want to have to routinely discipline a whole cabin...but it is important to me that camp is a place of safety – even felt safety.  So I ate a pickle.

Firebowl was delayed 30 minutes one night because of a conversation which needed to happen with boy with a heck of story.  His answers made me think, I felt a nudge.  I audibly told God “no” five times as I walked to light the fire.  I didn’t want to share any part of my story – not this week.  But with the conversation still burning and the nudge still nudging, I shared just a piece.  A very small piece.  And I was so mad at God for that one – but I ate a pickle anyway. 

The list could go on – don’t worry, it won’t.  If you look at it, however, this whole week was nearly as absurd as Laura eating a fried pickle so I could.  But I did...  I wanted to look God dead in the eye as I drove home and state “I ate this pickle for You!”  He didn’t apologize.  Instead there was this sense in which the answer was “Good.”

When working with children my most oft stated phrase is “Safety first is my number two rule!”  It’s typically yelled after children running with their shoes untied or attempting some group lift into a tree or something.  Sometimes the kids catch that the phrase doesn’t necessarily make sense.  “So then what’s your number one rule?”  “Jesus” I say. “Jesus is my number one rule.  Jesus doesn’t always ask you to do safe things.  But once it checks out through Jesus...then safety first should be your next agenda”.

Eating pickles is making safety first my number two rule. 

I, me, what I want, what I think I need – the thing which is otherwise first on my agenda – it should always come second to whatever it looks like, whatever it means, to be found in obedience to what God’s asked me to do.

Part of me thinks every believer ought to be able to have a book entitled “I Ate This Pickle for You! And other things I did because God asked me to...”  It can’t and shouldn’t be a hubris book of personal accolades but instead a testimony of faithfulness. God’s faithfulness to you and God’s faithfulness through you.  Your faithfulness in service to God in places where it was asked of you whether it was a choice you would have made or not. Places where God said “whom shall I send?” And though maybe you knew you’re the last person you wanted to say “here I am, send me”. 

“I ate this pickle for You!” ... it’s the statement screamed at God when it feels as if you are eating the pickle which seems far too big for you and you’re in over your head.

“I ate this pickle for You...” It’s the whimpered words of desperation when you’re eating the pickle feeling all alone and wishing God would just show up, seeing as it was something He asked you to do...

“I ate this pickle for You.”  It’s a declaration of offering when you successfully finish something far beyond your power or your control or energy or strength or ability – when people want to congratulate you and exalt you for everything you’ve accomplished.  When you know it had nothing to do with you and so you give it back. “This I did for You alone, take it and use it for Your glory and honor, that Your will may be accomplished in me and through me...”

John 3:30 finds itself in the midst of a testimony by John the Baptist.  His followers are worried because, (I find this terribly funny), people are going to Jesus to be baptized instead of to John.  He responds that his job, the work he does, it is only to make way for Jesus.  He was eating pickles so Christ could be known.  And his attitude ends the conversation as to why “He must increase and I must decrease”.  It has to be more about making God known than his own popularity, ego, or aspiration. 

In the end... “I ate this pickle for you” was an act of humility and service and friendship on Laura’s part.  Though goofy, she was willing to leave her place of comfort and desire so the goals of another could be accomplished. It’s the same with us and God.  God calls us to respond not necessarily out of our comfort or desire but out our service and love for Him.  We need to be willing to risk ourselves for the sake of the one who put the entirety of Himself on the line for us. 

If Jesus really is my “number one rule” then more often than I do I need to be able to respond with a life which proclaims “I ate this pickle for you”...

*I’m left handed and routinely automatically turn to the left, when making a reference, looking for a volunteer, etc.  It’s a thing.

To avoid inevitable confusion...the pickle is a metaphor and I would dare say there will be very few circumstances in which the literal consumption of a pickle will be an act of bold, self-sacrificing obedience for God.  Unless of course you’re my brother-in-law...for if he ever eats a pickle, that’s exactly what it will be!