Four Years of Cancer

Four years ago yesterday we found out Bryan has cancer.

Realizing it has been that long filled me with more feelings than I can express. Grateful. Thankful. Overwhelmed. Afraid. Sentimental. I could go on.

Then today I opened my Timehop app and found that 3 years ago yesterday Bryan was having the largest surgery he’s had so far, to remove a 15cm tumor and all of the lymphnodes in his right underarm. It was the first sign we had that the disease had spread and it wouldn’t be the last.

I decided today to share a few things I wrote about that day four years ago and also about that surgery three years ago. These are pieces, glimpses, vignettes, that I thought I might use for a memoir, but lately I haven’t felt so sure what to do with them. I haven’t written anything about cancer in months. I am no closer to knowing how to piece together a memoir now then I was eight months ago when I stopped actively working on one.

These pieces are unfinished, disjointed, but I think they need to see the light of day. I need to revisit them to remember what we’ve walked through, how far we’ve come, and how real this journey still is in our lives. I need to share them. I need to know that others see our story, and we aren’t alone in it.

 

Morning April 11, 2012

The phone rings. I ignore it and go back to nursing my daughter. My three year old son snuggles up next to me watching a show on the iPad. Bryan glances at the phone and asks if I know the number, I shake my head, and he answers anyway.

Within minutes I’m sitting straighter in my seat on the couch, racking my brain trying to figure out who my husband is talking to. His side of the conversation only adds to my confusion instead of lessening it. His voice doesn’t sound quite right. Something is wrong. But I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is.

He says goodbye and sets down the phone.

“Who was it?” I ask right away, eager to solve the mystery in my head.

“The dermatologists office. They got the pathology report back from that mass that was under my thumb nail.” His voice is controlled and calm. “It’s melanoma.”

The words crash over me like a wave. I feel adrift. I can’t seem to focus or completely grasp what that means.

“I thought they said it wasn’t cancerous. I thought they said it was some kind of common benign mass that pregnant women often get.” I don’t speak the words, but they bounce in my head.   

“What does that mean?” Are the words that actually escape my lips. I know it is bad. I know it is cancer, but I can’t wrap my mind around it. Bryan’s young, only 28. He’s healthy. It doesn’t mean what I think it means, right? It couldn’t mean that.

“They want me to see a hand surgeon and an oncologist. They agreed to set up both of those appointments for me so we won’t have to. They will call back in a little while to let us know when they are scheduled,” Bryan replies. I can tell that he is trying to keep the conversation matter-of-fact to protect my feelings.

He sits down next to my son and wraps his arm around him. They snuggle for a minute.

My head feels foggy and everything seems like a blur. Is this shock? Is this what shock feels like? I start to shake involuntarily.

“I have to go to work.” Bryan’s voice breaks through the fog.

“Yeah. Yeah. Ok.” It seems strange for him to leave so soon, strange that there would even be work to do after news like that. “Yeah, your mom should be here any time to pick up Thad for their play date.” The world seems to pick up spinning again and yet I only feel like I am half on it.

Bryan moves to sit next to me. He brings his arm around my shoulders, pulling me in close to his side. There are tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. “It’ll be ok,” he says as our daughter stops nursing for a moment and looks up at him with her biggest smile.

He kisses me and before I know it he’s gone.

Evening April 11, 2012

“I wasn’t able to concentrate and decided it would be better to come home early,” Bryan explains as he walks through the door. There is a sadness in his voice that I had never heard there before.

We walk up to the park by our apartment. Bryan chases Thad through the grass with a new relish, holding him extra tight and extra long when he catches him. When he is not holding the kids, he is holding me.

We put the kids to bed early and sit alone at the dinner table. Our hands clasped in their own sort of embrace as we attempt to eat.

Tears shine in both of our eyes as we talk. In quiet voices we begin to process the new ground we are now standing on.

“I don’t want Thad and Sage to grow up without a dad,” Bryan chokes the words out as the tears that had been glistening in his eyes all day finally spill over his cheeks.

I have never seen my husband touched by fear and grief like this. My own tears flow freely as I move over onto his lap and wrap my arms around him.

Our lips find each other in a tender kiss and we abandon our food as we move into the bedroom.

April 11, 2013

The doctor comes into the waiting room. It’s not Dr. B., so I assume he’s there to talk to someone else. He walks straight towards my mom and me.

“Are you Mrs. Stedman?”

“Yes.”

He introduces himself as one of the doctors who assisted Dr. B. in the surgery and pulls up a chair across from me. There’s only one other person in the waiting room right now, but I still feel a little awkward that he didn’t lead us into one of the private rooms off to the side.

“The surgery went great. Your husband is doing very well.”

I sigh and say a quiet prayer of thanks.

“The tumor was larger than we had suspected. It measured 15cm. We had to take out all the lymph nodes in his right underarm and some of the one’s up towards his neck on that side as well. I have a picture of the tumor if you want to see.”

My mom and I look at each other. “That’s ok,” we politely reply.

We continue to talk for a few more minutes and he discusses what the size of this tumor means. We ask more questions. We get more answers.

“Did it not all show up on the PET scan?” my mom asked.

“From the PET scan we thought it would be about 7cm,” he replied. “Are you sure you don’t want to see it?”

I feel terrified to see the picture, but also somehow drawn to it. “Ok.”

He pulls out his phone and shows us. Stretched out next to a ruler is a mass of my husbands flesh. I can see the cleaned off skin on the front edge and the whole tumor which had stretched half a foot back into my husbands chest. No wonder he had been in pain.

My sigh of relief is quickly stollen from my lungs. My chest is tight. How could they not have known that it was that big? How could something that big have grown so quickly? He had a PET scan just a few months ago and there was nothing there, or at least nothing that was big enough to be picked up. Wouldn’t the scan that he had last week have shown the size of the tumor? How could they not have known? How could it have hidden from them? What else could be hiding from them now? All these questions wrap themselves around my chest and make my breathing tight and shallow.

“The surgery went well. He’s doing great.” The doctor repeats. And I repeat it again in my head, like a mantra, over and over again. “The surgery went well. He’s doing great. The surgery went well. He’s doing great. The surgery went well…”

————

I pick up the phone and call Bryan’s mom. “The surgery went well. The doctor just came in and told us Bryan’s doing great.”

“Oh thank God.” I can hear the anxiety still linger as she breaths this authentic prayer of praise.

“Thank you for being with Thaddeus. I know you would rather be here with Bryan.” I continue on to tell her more about the surgery and we share our relief over the phone.

“So, this is it, right? There is a very good chance that we won’t have to deal with melanoma again.” She almost sounds like she’s holding her breath as she asks the question. Looking for reassurance, wanting it all to be over so she can go back to life as it was. Hoping she can breath again.

I’m not sure how to answer her. I understand her desire. I feel her desire. But, I’m also stunned and silenced by her words. Has she not done any research on melanoma? Does she not know what this diagnosis means? I am silent for too long. I take a deep breath. I try to control my voice as I slowly swallow my own fears and answer, “Well…that’s the thing with melanoma…it’s always likely to return or spread…no…there isn’t a very good chance that this is it.”

The line was silent between us for a long while then.

I feel like I just handed her the death sentence for her son, and swallowed the death of my own life and love in the process. I have to break this silence. I have to change the tone.

“The surgery went really great, though. He’s doing really well. You guys will come down later tonight, right?”

We finish up the conversation on a lighter note and say our goodbyes.

———

“Hey, thanks for coming down.” I hug my sister-in-law and feel genuinely, overwhelmingly glad that she and her husband are here.

“How’s he doing?” They ask.

“He’s doing well. He’s out of surgery and the doctor came and talked to my mom and I, but we haven’t seen Bryan yet. He’s still in recovery. They said they will call when they are ready for me to go back.” I lead them around the corner and into the waiting room as we talk. My mom is sitting there holding Sage, keeping her distracted with a toy.

We all sit down together. We visit and talk. The mood is casual and relaxed. We all feel relieved after the long day of waiting.

After about an hour and still no word on whether we could go back to see Bryan, Tamara and Raul decide they should go. They are going to take Sage home with them and get her fed and ready for bed. It’s getting late now and she clearly seems tired. I feel so grateful for their help.

As they prepare to leave the conversation turns back to Bryan and the surgery.

“This is it, right? It’s over.” Tamara asks.

I remember my awkward and emotional conversation with her mom, and again feel stunned and confused.

“It’s never really over with melanoma.”

Grace and peace,
Bethany Stedman


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Fragile Confidence

Twice today I had opportunities to share small pieces of my heart and I shrunk back instead. I shared circumstances rather than soul. I stumbled over words and dismissed something that meant a lot to me rather than speaking boldly about it. I do this a lot.

I often withhold my heart from others, because consciously or unconsciously I make a decision about my worth, and the worth of what I have to share.

I decide for them that they wouldn’t care. I decide that it wouldn’t be as important to them as it is to me, and because it is so important to me (as all things that are of the heart are) I fear they won’t give it the attention or care I want, so it’s better not to share, not to put it out there. I shrink back.

“They have their own things, they don’t want to hear about mine.”

“Now’s not the time. They aren’t really asking for heart stuff, they are just asking in passing and if I go to heart stuff it will get uncomfortable.”

“They don’t really want to know. They are just being nice.”

Often thoughts like these move so quickly through me that I can’t tease them out or discern them, I just stumble over my words and pass up the opportunity before I realize it even was an opportunity.

At yoga today a women I respect and look up to, who I would also really like to get to know better (the worst combination for making me feel socially anxious) commented on my hair and then asked if there was something that prompted the extreme cut. It was a perfect opportunity to let her see heart, to maybe broaden this casual friendship. I sputtered and stumbled and mumbled something about it “just being time”.

Friends, this hair cut was about so much more than it “just being time.” It was something holy, something long coming, something necessary. It was something worth documenting and remembering, something worthy of a blog post despite my long silence in this space.

I wrote in the fall about snakes shedding skin, and the need to strip off what isn’t for me anymore. I’ve been sitting with that for a long time. A few things have peeled off, a few things are fighting to peel off now, there is constant shedding and re-evaluating, this last season has been full of it. But for awhile now I’ve been feeling a new season stirring. A season not separate or different from this season of shedding, of giving up territory that’s not mine, of breaking old chains, but a season that moves broader. I needed an outward symbol of this season. I needed a act that solidified the desire to not put old shed skin back on again. I needed a symbolic gesture that showed I’d been there, I’d shed, and now it was time to move on to new depths.

And more than that, I needed a new shedding, a shedding of the part of me that devalues myself. The part of me that feels about twelve even though I’m in my mid-thirties. The part of me that puts others up on pedestals and says they are so much better and far beyond me that I have no right to want to be their friend, or even to give them honest glimpses of my heart when asked. The part of me that makes myself small and young, incapable and weak, timid and afraid. The part of me that forgets that I have something to offer the world, that I do have value, and a voice, and a place.

I needed a haircut that not only symbolically shed layers, but that also was a bit bold, confident, spunky even. Something that made me look mid-thirties instead of mid-twenties. I prayed for bold confidence as the scissors snapped and the pieces of hair fell to the floor, confidence to be who I am, to share who I am, to believe that I am valued and deeply loved. 

Today, when I shrunk back from sharing even a small glimpse of my heart, I shrunk back from that prayer without even realizing it. So I’m realizing it now, I’m confessing it, I’m saying I want to live bold, authentic, open hearted, and confident. I’m tired of shrinking I’m tired of hiding.

Oh but, friends, change comes slowly, and even today’s story doesn’t stop there. I shrunk when it came to speaking about my hair and then I puffed up when the next opportunity to share heart came. Both times I hid.

Three different people this morning asked me how my first yoga class at my new home studio went last week. Here was another opportunity to share heart, instead I chose to highlight only certain things, things that kept the conversation light and comfortable, even things that made me look good without showing hurt.

I shared about how the room was full and how we ended up with more people than I expected because some of my friends brought their older kids to do yoga too.

But, friends, this is another area of my life that I need to document, that I need to process out in words, and for some reason I’ve been shrinking away from sharing, not just in person but even in writing. More than that this is an area of my life where I really need encouragement and advice and people to hold space for me. I need sisterhood in this area of my life and I’ve hidden from it. 

I’m terrified to start trying to teach yoga again. That’s the truth of it. Scared absolutely shitless. 

This desire to teach yoga started almost 8 years ago. It came at me with fire and passion and a vision that was big and beautiful and beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I wanted to do more than teach yoga, I wanted to usher people into the presence of the Spirit of God. I wanted to lead them in an experience of worship that was wholistic and complete. I wanted to shift things in their bodies, hearts and spirits. I wanted to preach and teach and walk beside them in tangible, physical, radical ways. I wanted a class that would be more than a class, I wanted a sisterhood, a tribe, a deeply bonded community who would hold space for one another, who would do more than practice yoga together, who would practice life together. I didn’t know anyone doing that. I had never heard of holy yoga, or Yahweh yoga, or Jesus & yoga, or anything like that.

I started a yoga teacher training program and at the same time started teaching whoever I could gather in to my home for free classes. I called it yoga and prayer or something super basic like that and you can find some of those early classes in the archives of this blog. I started with so much energy and then there were a lot of classes where only one person showed up, or no one showed up. This little seed of a dream started to show some small cracks.

Then I got pregnant and my world turned upside down and this little seed got buried.

Every now and then over the years I would start teaching again. A few months of classes in my home, a few weeks of teaching in my mother-in-laws living room, a random class here or there, a few classes for the college group at church, a few weeks of teaching corporate classes at my dad’s office, but nothing came close to touching that original vision. Every attempt felt like a breaking, a cracking in the dark. Each attempt ended in hurt or disappointment.

Most of the time tending to this dream has looked like tending to dirt (or tending to shit). I’ve spent money on trainings and mats, props and books. Always with the question, “why the heck do I keep doing this?” hanging heavy on my shoulders.
But isn’t that what it’s like tending to seeds before they germinate, before they sprout? You water dirt. You care for dirt. 

And some seeds have such long germination times.

Right now, having an entire room of my house devoted to yoga and tentatively starting to teach classes again, somehow feels different than other times I’ve tried to teach.
When I was praying this morning I had the perfect picture for it. This attempt feels like a sprout. It’s not the full plant I want it to be, but it feels like something green and alive, fresh and new. It feels different than attempts I’ve made in the past, it doesn’t feel buried. Something is breaking out of the dark. I can feel it. I don’t know quiet what yet, but it’s there.

Oh, but it is fragile, like one tiny shoot reaching out towards the light. It feels like it needs protecting, a greenhouse of warmth and encouragement. And though it’s there above ground, it’s main job isn’t to produce fruit or even grow much, it’s main job is still to put down roots, to soak up all of the nutrients from the rich soil that it can. 
So, class last week was good. It felt alive, a living thing bigger than me, but it also felt so fragile, so tender, so thin and small and easily destroyed.

Teaching again has meant breathing into a lot of hurt spaces for me, a lot of self doubt, a lot of fear of rejection, a lot of feelings of not being good enough, a lot of hard sticky spaces. It has meant a lot of falling before God and asking for a movement of the Spirit, for him to do a work in me and through me, for him to bring to completion the dream he gave me. A lot of praying for him to change how I see myself, to give me a right view of myself, not too high and also not too low. A lot of praying for bold confidence to value what he’s given me to share. 

Grace and peace, friends.

Grace and peace,

Bethany


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Claiming The Land

Months ago I wrote about how I was praying for a Year of Jubilee. I wanted a season of rest, very specifically a rest from cancer, and all the worry and pain my husband’s cancer treatments inflict on my heart. God, in his grace, has since given us six months of “stable disease”, six months without treatment. 

What I didn’t realize when I prayed for a Year of Jubilee was how much God would call out in my heart the other purposes of this specific season of Jewish law. During Jubilee slaves go free, and for months God has been showing me one place in my life after another where I wear the chains of slavery. I am slave to old wounds, slave to what others think of me, slave to approval, slave to fear, and shame, and guilt. And I am slave to so much sin. 

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. (Romans 7:15)

God placed bright lights on my slavery, and honestly I didn’t always respond very well. Oh but grace! Grace began to whisper and then to shout, and the words that grace speaks are LOVE. Pure love. 

Some chains broke, some began to loosen, some still have a long way to go. But I know that it is the work of the Spirit to free me and it will be done. In time. Through love. Not through my natural attempts at shame or striving, but through love. 

As this new year began, I started looking at a different aspect of the Year of Jubilee. There is a clear message of place in this season. A call to trust God for our “land”. A call to give up land that you’ve claimed that doesn’t belong to you and take back, reclaim, land that is rightfully yours. 

In a society that lives off the land, land means more than just home, it means place and purpose and work. Your land was your place in the community. 

And so I’ve been asking God a question… 

“What is my land? Where is the place that is for me and only me to claim and occupy?”

So often in my life I think I have shrunk back from claiming land that could have been mine. I shrink in fear, in uncertainty, in self doubt, in self consciousness. I don’t want to do that anymore. 

But I am no stranger to the other side of this either. I have often tried to claim land that probably (or in hindsight, clearly) wasn’t for me. I have spread myself thin, dipping my toes in lots of different communities, in lots of different activities, in lots of different work and dreams. I don’t want to do that anymore. 

Here’s what I do want: 

Only the land God has for me. 

Only the place He’s written my name on. 

Only the seat at the table that He directs me to. 

I’m not really sure what this will look like. For the last month it had meant canceling a lot of things, not going to a lot of things. It’s meant being home a lot, because the one place I’m certain is for me is my place with my husband and my children. I don’t say that with any since of obligation, or chauvinism, or old wounds of “a woman’s place is in the kitchen.” I say it because I love my husband and children, this is where my love is, this is where my vows are, this is my family, my roots, my clear place. 

But I know it’s not my only place either, and I feel sure that there is land, purpose and place in community, that God has for me and my family that we haven’t claimed. So I continue to pray. 

A few weeks ago this prayer took a very tangible turn, and it resulted in very clear and physical leading that I don’t want to forget. Because here’s the thing, in this day and age our place and purpose doesn’t have to be dictated by our physical, tangible, geography, but it will always, always, be influenced by it. 

So as I prayed for place, I began to pray for tangible, physical, geography as well. We’ve been living in a rental, borrowed land, for two years since moving to Arizona. We’ve been living far from our kids school and from many of the people who we consider part of our close community. 

So every day as I drove the 30 minutes to take my kids to school and the 30 minutes home again I began to pray for a house. And I began to pray super specific, for necessary things and unnecessary things. Above all though I prayed that we wouldn’t move just to move, but that God would move us where he wants us, to the house that has our names written on it, the place that would put us where he wants us and enable us to be the people he wants us to be. 

I remember one day in particular, when I got super honest with my own heart and with God. I told Him I really like our rental now, that although I wanted to move, I didn’t have any urgency to leave this place. This house has been a safe haven for us the past two years, it fits us well. I don’t want to leave it unless I’m absolutely sure that the next house is a place God picked just for us. I didn’t just want a move, I wanted a calling, a calling to a specific house. 

Well friends, today, only a few weeks after that prayer we are 14 days away from a close date on a house. And I can say with confidence, God picked it for us. 

Soon after that prayer I told my sister I thought Bryan and I should start casually looking at houses, no urgency, just looking. She instantly got on her computer and found a handful of houses within the few blocks surrounding her house. One of them, the one with the blue door, stood out. It was a bit more expensive then I wanted, and a bit bigger than I thought we needed. But I kept feeling nudged towards the house with the blue door. I think I looked at it on line every day that week. 

That weekend a dear friend of ours who is a realtor took us to see a handful of houses. We went to the house with the blue door first. It had nearly all of the necessary things I had prayed for and many of the unnecessary things I had asked. It was essentially turn-key and would need little to no work, which is very rare for the area we were looking in. We loved it, but our guard instantly went up. We looked at a bunch more houses that day but none of them met any of our requirements. 

We came home thinking and praying about the house with the blue door, but both secretly saying good bye to it, because we weren’t sure we were ready to move on it as quickly as we would need to in order to get it before someone else. We also weren’t sure we could really afford it and we knew the owners had already turned down one low offer. 

That night our landlady sent us an email telling us she’d like to sell the house we’ve been renting. The next day she officially gave us 30 days notice to move out. Suddenly we had our urgency, but we still weren’t sure we could afford the house with the blue door. 

We went back to the drawing board and looked at a bunch more houses. We only found one other house that met our requirements and felt livable for us, but it didn’t stir anything in us. We both kept thinking and talking about the house with the blue door. 

One day standing in the kitchen Bryan said, “I think we need to make a big ask. I think we need to ask God to give us this house and to give it to us at a cost we can afford.” So we started to pray. 

I went back to the house with the realtor to see it again, and though I didn’t want to admit this to anyone, walking in the door already felt like coming home. 

We started working on financing and my anxiety attacks started. For me it wasn’t just the fact that it was a bit more expensive than I’d like, I wasn’t sure I was really ready to buy at all. I wanted the benefits of buying, like being able to re-do things, make things more accessible for Sage, paint etc. But I didn’t want the liability. Bryan’s cancer is stable, but we have no idea how long it will stay stable and all I could think about was the liability that would fall on my shoulders if it didn’t. 

And then we were told that because we still have another mortgage (a condo we bought when we were first married) we couldn’t qualify for enough to make an offer on the house with the blue door, in fact we were a bit too tight for most of the houses in that area. 

We felt discouraged but kept praying. I started praying for some unforeseen way that we could have the benefits of owning without all of the liability. That’s when my parents went and saw the house, decided it was perfect for us, and offered to buy the place for us, with the understanding that we could buy it from them once we were ready, and if something happened to Bryan and we never were ready then they would take care of selling it or renting it or whatever needed to happen – the benefits of owning without all the liability, exactly what I prayed. 

While all this was going on the owners got another offer on the house, a high offer, but a contingency offer, and they refused it.

We decided to make a low offer with the understanding that they would probably negotiate higher. My parents hate negotiating, and Bryan and I aren’t fans of it either, so I quietly prayed that they would accept the first offer, never imagining that they actually would.  They accepted our low offer right away. 

At this point we felt awed and grateful, but we knew there were still lots of things that could go wrong. 

The next time we went to the house there was a note from the owners saying how happy they were that a young family was buying their house and how happy they had been living in this house. There was also a stack of boxes and tape they had left for us. Tears welled in my eyes as I walked through the house again. 

When the house appraised it appraised for exactly, to the dollar, the amount we had offered and they had accepted. When the inspection was done there were some minor little things found, but only two bigger things. One was the roof which we had already known about and factored in going into the deal. The other was that there is a leak in the master bath room. Someone wouldn’t normally say that a leak in the master bathroom was an answer to prayer, but for me it was a little bit. The master bath was our least favorite part of the house and one of the things I wanted to do to the house was re-do that bathroom and make it accessible for Sage. I thought we’d have to save up for a while to do it, but the leak gave us urgency. Rather than ask the sellers to fix things we decided to ask for a credit to go towards the roof and bathroom. I had a set number I was praying for and they agree to that. 

Oh, and we were also able to set a close date that was less than 30 days out so that we would close three days before we needed to be out of our rental. 

Friends, I know all too well that things don’t often work out so smoothly in life. But sometimes, purely and solely by God’s grace they do. This house feels like it has our names all over it, like it’s exactly where God wants us. It feels like a gift given to us by someone who knew us really well. And I want to remember this time, document it, and call it to mind. 

Now my prayers have shifted. Now, I’m praying for paths to place, to the place in community that is FOR ME, that are as clear as this move has been.  I’m praying for what my friend Morgan calls “holy nudges”. The kinds of nudges that lead me to pray big bold asks. The kind of nudges that make me say, “That’s not possible” and then let me watch and participate as God makes it possible. 

I don’t want to fight against walls. I don’t want to try and claim land that’s not mine to claim. I also don’t want to shrink back from the big asks, or from the places God has for me. 

I just want to follow the Spirit. 

I want to claim just what God leads me to. I want to claim the places that are mine, and for me, and have my name on them, nothing more and nothing less. I want God to fight for me, and my work to be the work of love, grace, and prayer, the persistent work of simply marching around the walls of Jericho with trumpets calling forth praise, the work where God gets all the glory cause it’s all him, all His grace. Grace upon grace upon grace. 

Grace and peace,

Bethany


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Who Am I In Truth

The alarm wakes me from unconsciousness and I rise, dragging my feet as I do most mornings when I’ve managed to get an ounce of sleep, my body craving more of the illusive comfort. Sage is awake and we sit for a moment on the couch cuddling. I am not ready to break the stillness, the silence, but I can feel the clock pulling at me. It is time to get moving.

I hand Sage a doll to play with and head to the kitchen. It is still dark outside as I flip the switch on the electric kettle and wait for the noise of the water boiling inside. I wish I could turn a kettle on inside me some mornings, to warm the chill that creeps in and find the heat to start the day.

I pull a mug out of the cupboard and pour the hot water into it before sitting down at the table. I should go wake Thad. But, I’m not ready. I’ll just finish my hot water first. I grab my phone and out of habit click on the Instagram icon. It barely opens before my thumb hits the large white button at the bottom of my phone. That’s not how I want to start my day.

Instead I click open my bible app and read the passage for the day. Genesis 35 glares at me from the screen, as if it were a large road sign momentarily lit by the light of a speeding car.

(Click here to read)

There’s something here for me. But, I’m not exactly sure what. I switch translations and read it again slowly in The Message, and then in The Voice, and then I sit.

Quiet.

In the dark.

One word stirs in my heart, “Ask.”

I’ve been posing the same question to God for years, decades even, “Who are you?” I’ve been praying over and over, “God show me who you are, in truth. Not as I imagine you to be, not as people tell me that you are, not even just as I’ve previously believed you to be, show me who you are in truth.”

And another question, equally common to humanity, “Who am I?” has rested heavy on me. Lately it has held me captive. Who am I really? Who am I in truth?

These are the most basic questions, perhaps the most common, but they aren’t as easily answered as I’ve often been led to believe. These are questions we live into, these are questions we breath, questions we ask again and again sometimes getting one answer sometimes getting another, sometimes getting no answer at all but simply soaking into our hearts some truth completely incomprehensible to the intellect.

God tells Jacob to get up, arise, move. He tells him to go to Bethel, which means house of God. And so Jacob and all his household purify themselves, cleanse themselves. They take a bath. They take off all their jewelry, all the trappings they hide behind, and they set aside all their foreign, alien, false god’s. They gather all these false, foreign, extras and bury them.

In the dark quiet of my kitchen a prayer escapes from my lips, a question passes through my heart…

What is false in my life? What is foreign? What things am I hiding behind, clinging to, giving a place of honor in my life, wearing like jewelry on my heart, that are false? What things am I picking up that are foreign, that aren’t mine, that aren’t for me? What idols am I quietly collecting? Show me the things that need to be set aside so that I can simply and completely, in wholeness, be who I am, as you intended me to be. Show me the false, so I can see the true. Cleanse me, so that all that is left is what is true and real, right and mine. So that I can come to Bethel, the house of God, and meet with you in truth.

And God meets with Jacob again and gives him a new name.

“Your name is Jacob (Heel); but that’s your name no longer. From now on your name is Israel (God-Wrestler).” (The Message)

God-Wrestler.

What did Jacob think of this new name? Is it what he hoped for? Perhaps not. It’s not exactly a feel good name, it’s not Father of Nations, or Prince of Peace. God-Wrestler invokes a certain amount of pain, doesn’t it? And yet it’s an honest name. We can see it in Jacob from our vantage point, but could he?

And isn’t it, in fact, a name full of honor? God Almighty let Jacob wrestle with him, allowed Jacob to bring all of his baggage and questions and frustrations right before the throne and wrestle it out with the God of the universe there. What a privilege!

Do I want God to speak an honest name to me? A name full of honor and privilege, but also, quiet possibly, full of pain? Or am I still wearing so much of my jewelry, and carrying so many of my foreign god’s that I can’t accept an honest name. Do I hold on to a name that is lesser than all that God has for me? Or strive after a name that is more? Can I let him speak honest truth over me instead?

Israel doesn’t seem to accept the name right away either. The text continues to call him Jacob.

And then a son is born and Rachel dies. Jacob is given a great joy with a great pain. And then the text reads, “Israel journeyed on…”

It’s as if that moment of mixed pain and joy confronts Jacob with his true identity, God-wrestler.

I again read over the last few verses of the chapter, names and places. It blurs a little. Stop. Pay attention, something has happened. Israel is Jacob once more. Why? Is it important.

Israel was an honest name, but perhaps it was also one that Jacob had to live into, like the questions. Perhaps that is how it is with us as well sometimes. God shows up and gives us a glimpse of who we are, at heart, in honest truth, and we don’t claim it right away, and then maybe for a time we do, we live into it, and then we revert back for a time to our old self, our old foreign falseness.

And maybe this is yet another place where we need each other, where we need community. We need people who can call out our real names. People who will remind us when we sink back into the old self. People who will speak truth to us, even when that truth looks harsh. People who will say, “This is not who you are. This is something foreign. This is something false. You need to bury this.”

Jacob had a new name. Perhaps for the first time in his life he saw himself rightly, saw himself honestly, as God saw him. And then he went back to his family, his sons and his father, and they called him Jacob. Rather than call out the deeper true identity, they saw the old, the “heel”.

Often in my own life I feel a great shift has happened, a peeling back of the false and a stepping into the true, and then, well, then life continues. And things go back to how they were. And perhaps there are hints of the change, but it isn’t acted out in completeness.

And sometimes, no often, even when those around me do call me by the truth and see the new or the could-be in me, I don’t believe them. I still cling to the lesser name.

There’s a chapter in Henri’s book The Inner Voice of Love that I haven’t been able to shake lately. He writes:

“When people who know your heart well and love you dearly say that you are a child of God, that God has entered deeply into your being, and that you are offering much of God to others, you hear these statements as pep talks. You don’t believe that these people are really seeing what they are saying.
You have to start seeing yourself as your truthful friends see you. As long as you remain blind to your own truth, you keep putting yourself down and referring to everyone else as better, holier, and more loved than you are. You look up to everyone in whom you see goodness, beauty, and love because you do not see any of these qualities in yourself. As a result, you begin leaning on others without realizing that you have everything you need to stand on your own feet.
You cannot force things, however. You cannot make yourself see what others see. You cannot fully claim yourself when parts of you are still wayward. You have to acknowledge where you are and affirm that place. You have to be willing to live your loneliness, your incompleteness, your lack of total incarnation fearlessly, and trust that God will give you the people to keep showing you the truth of who you are.”

And there, hidden towards the end, lies some key to the spiritual life, “…trust that God…”

Trust that God will keep speaking truth over me. Trust that God will keep calling out my true name, and giving  me others, at just the right time, who would speak that name over me as well. Trust that God will finish the work he began in me. Trust that it is God, by his grace, who does the work.

The light is beginning to creep through my kitchen window now and my cup is empty. A prayer lingers on the air…

And the day begins.

Grace and peace,

Bethany


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Hail The New

“…fast away the old year passes…”

For the past few years I’ve gotten to New Year’s Eve and said a very firm “good riddance!” They were hard years and I was eager to put them behind me.

Last year was also like that, but with an added note of tenderness. I wanted to put the year behind me, I wanted to put growing cancer cells and uncertainty behind me, but I knew I couldn’t. We were still in it. So I clung gently to the word “hope”, and we spent our New Years praying and smudging and holding our tender hearts in open hands with only the safest of friends.

Now we come again to this landmark of passing time. This year feels so different then the last few. This year Bryan isn’t in treatment. His tumors haven’t grown in about eight months. We’ve tentatively, slowly, started to dream again. We’ve been in a fairly “normal” season.

And I want to hold on to it.

It’s been a hard year, but it’s also been a sweet year. A tender year. A year were external pressures have slowly lessened and made room for growth, and depth, and slow healing.

Much of this year for me has been peeling back layers and shedding skin. It’s been a year of shining light in dark corners, and bringing things out into the open. It’d been a year of waking up, and letting go of numbness, of a slowly opening heart and all the hurt that comes with that.

It’s been a year of deep personal soul work. And I’m not ready for it to end.

I know it won’t, I know it doesn’t need to just because of an arbitrary date on the calendar, but I also know this date marks a shifting.

Something new is coming. Maybe not tomorrow at the strike of midnight, but sometime soon. No season lasts forever. And I can already feel this one ending.

“…hail the new, ye lads and lasses…”

There have been little invitations everywhere. Invitations to enter into a new sort of soul work, a new level of heart work, to build on all that has come from 2015, and step onto new ground.

It is an invitation though, and I know I have a choice to accept it or not. I can sense within me the urge to drag my feet, to think I’m not ready yet, to believe that I need to stay in this space longer. Yet I know my hesitation is just fear.

The fear of not knowing what’s next. I can handle the hard spaces I know, I’m not sure I can handle the hard spaces I don’t know.

What hard heart work does God have for me next?

This year could bring anything.

When I think about that I don’t get excited for all the unknown good this year could bring, instead my mind goes straight to all that could go wrong. I know, all too well, how quickly things can change.

At the heart of my fear are two beliefs. The believe that I am not good enough, strong enough, kind enough, smart enough to handle what comes my way. And the belief that what God has for me is only for my “spiritual good”.

I still don’t believe that The Spirit of God has good things for me, wants good things for me, here and now, in this life. In very real and tangible ways I still don’t believe (though I struggle to believe it) that God loves me.

I think that is the heart of this invitation I keep hearing, the invitation into a new year, a new season, a new space of growth and learning. Will I believe that I am the beloved? Can I accept that God loves me AND has good things for me (in the land of the living)?

How? How do I step onto this new ground, into this new land? Beliefs aren’t changed by a sudden act of decision. It takes time and lots of little repeated decisions, decisions to stay the course.

I’m finding a small bit of the map in the writings of Henri Nouwen lately. It is good that though each story is unique to the individual there is also much that is common in the spiritual journey.

“The new country is where you are called to go, and the only way to go there is naked and vulnerable…As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed. A seed only flourishes by staying in the ground in which it is sown…Think about yourself as a little seed planted in rich soil. All you have to do is stay there and trust that the soil contains everything you need to grow. This growth takes place even when you do not feel it. Be quiet, acknowledge your powerlessness, and have faith that one day you will know how much you have received.” The Inner Voice of Love

“Do not despair, thinking that you cannot change yourself after so many years. Simply enter into the presence of Jesus as you are and ask him to give you a fearless heart where he can be with you. You cannot make yourself different. Jesus came to give you a new heart, a new spirit, a new mind, and a new body. Let him transform you by his love and so enable you to receive his affection in your whole being.” The Inner Voice of Love

“Do not discount what you have already accomplished. You have made important steps toward the freedom you are searching for…You can look at your life as a large cone that becomes narrower the deeper you go. There are many doors in that cone that give you chances to leave the journey. But you have been closing these doors one after the other, making yourself go deeper and deeper into your center. You know that Jesus is waiting for you at the end, just as you know that he is guiding you as you move in that direction. Every time you close another door – be it the door of immediate satisfaction, the door of distracting entertainment, the door of busyness, the door of guilt and worry, or the door of self-rejection – you commit yourself to go deeper into your heart and thus deeper into the heart of God.
This is a movement toward full incarnation. It leads you to become what you already are – a child of God; it lets you embody more and more the truth of your being; it makes you claim the God within you… You must trust the depth of God’s presence in you and live from there.” The Inner Voice of Love

“Jesus is where you are, and you can trust that he will show you the next step.” The Inner Voice of Love

Yes, come Lord Jesus. Teach me to trust. Change the beliefs I hold about myself and about You. Change them so that all that remains is honest truth. And as I step into this new year, this new season, hold me firm in your love.

Grace and peace,
Bethany


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