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Cancer

A story for kids (especially those who are hurting)

Several years ago I wrote a story for my son whose world had been turned upside-down by both chronic illness and my first cancer diagnosis. As a mom, I longed to create a gentle place for Jeremy to process his grief, so I asked God to help me do things like keep an open dialogue with him, create joy in our family even through the hardest days, and track down support for him within our community. I also wanted to address his suffering in a creative, disarming way, so I asked God to help me wield the language of story, putting words to those tenderest places of a child’s grieving heart. Even as I wrote Out of the Shadow World, I prayed it would care not only for Jeremy, but also for other kids who have been touched by cancer, chronic illness, and grief of many other kinds. While I’m not a child therapist nor am I an authority on kids’ suffering, my heart beats big to share the comfort our family has received from God through many years of walking together through various sufferings.** This story is one of the ways I can share that comfort—gently addressing themes of grief and pain and death through adventure, friendship, and a touch of zany humor. What a joy it would be to care for a child in your life who’s suffering right now. I’ve included Chapter One here so you can get a feel for the story. . . ~ ~ ~ CHAPTER ONE: THE CLIMBING TREE Pax Jackson was a ten-year-old boy who didn’t know if he’d make it to his eleventh birthday.  He had gray eyes, a bald head where thick curls used to grow, and a little more of his dad’s dark skin than his mom’s fair complexion. He also had a nagging cough that rattled his bony body and kept him up at night. Instead of shoving his homework into his backpack and rushing to catch the bus home from school that afternoon, he sat on the back deck of his family’s log cabin, dangling his feet over the edge and watching a fat lizard do push-ups in the warm sun. With the sound of his own wheezing loud in his ears, he didn’t notice the squeak of the school bus brakes on the street out front.  Jayni Suko was a petite ten-year-old girl with almond eyes and paper-straight black hair. Stepping off the school bus, she bent forward under the weight of a bulging backpack as she made a detour toward the house next door. She bounded up the driveway of Pax’s home and hurried around to the backyard.  “Pax!” Jayni ran up the steps of the deck, dropped her backpack, and sat down beside her friend. She studied Pax’s face. “We missed you at school. This a bad day?”  “Yeah.” A smile peeked out through the dark circles around his eyes. “What’d I miss?”  “Not much. Miss Halpin gave me your homework but said if you weren’t feeling up to it, don’t worry. She’ll help you catch up later.”  Jayni pulled two tattered textbooks out of her backpack and a few wrinkled worksheets and plopped them between her and Pax.  Pax only glanced at his homework, then turned away.  Jayni followed his gaze out over a sloping hill peppered with pine trees.  Jayni was the youngest daughter of the Suko family who’d moved next door to the Jacksons almost twelve years ago. The Sukos and Jacksons had become fast friends, and when Pax and Jayni were born two years later, the neighborhood had grown a little louder and a lot more fun. Jayni looked over at Pax. “You okay?”  “Yeah, I guess.” Pax’s voice softened. “I’m glad you’re here.” The friends sat in silence. The lizard darted away and disappeared under the deck. Pax took a deep, rattly breath.  “Do you think you could make it down to the Climbing Tree?” Jayni asked. “I can help you.”  “’Course I can, Spitfire. And I don’t need any help.”  Spitfire was Pax’s nickname for Jayni. He’d read it once in a book about dragons and knights, and it seemed to fit his friend who was as fiery and fearless as a dragon.  Jayni laughed as she hopped up. “I just have to be home by dinner, so we’ve got two hours. Let’s go!”  Jayni reached down for Pax’s hand, but he pushed it away, eager to prove he was stronger than he looked.  The two friends descended the deck steps and scampered down a small bank covered in crunchy pine needles. Their footfalls stirred the scent of a thousand Christmas trees into the warm spring air. Pax paused to catch his breath along the way. Ten steps forward, a right at the boulder, a hop across the stream—and there stood the Climbing Tree, like a giant with an oversized head of shaggy hair.  They’d discovered the enormous oak when they were just six years old, and they’d been returning ever since—to dream up stories, build forts, and talk about important kid stuff, like the proper ratio of ketchup to French fry. Sometimes on the weekends or holidays, they’d pack snacks and books and blankets, and read under the expansive branches till the sun got sleepy.  This is also where they’d had their biggest fight, the summer they were seven. And where they’d run to take refuge two years ago—on the day Pax got his diagnosis. Jayni beat Pax to the tree and lifted a thick, drooping branch high so he could pass underneath. But Pax grabbed the branch himself and waited for Jayni to enter first. She shot him a withering look but marched inside anyway. When Pax let go of the branch, it swished and thudded against the ground. Now safely beneath the canopy of branches, the children headed straight to their favorite spots. Pax chose a low broad limb and slung his body over it like a sloth, arms and legs dangling free.  Jayni

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close up photo of white and pink plants
Beauty

Aging for the good of others

I grew up on the doorstep of Hollywood and Orange County, the beauty capitals of the world. When out-of-state friends visited, they were stunned by the “beauties per capita” of my neighborhood. I’m not sure if it was this saturation of perfectly curated faces and bodies, or a hardwired desire within me, but as a teenager I prayed, “God, please make me beautiful. Please. And if you do, I’ll use my beauty to glorify you.”  I laugh now at my young, self-serving prayer, but even to this day—on the cusp of 47 years old—I long to be beautiful. However, as the forties have proven, aging isn’t a kind process, and wrinkles don’t turn heads. Nor does a terminal cancer diagnosis filled with harsh treatments. My once firm-and-glowing skin has been replaced by the relentless effects of gravity, accelerated by years of chemotherapy.  ~ ~ ~  At 30 years old, my (not yet sagging) jowls almost dropped when one of my work colleagues, also 30, outlined her lifelong Botox plan to me. Botox was still the new kid on the block, unvetted, eyed with suspicion. I looked at my friend’s face—still glowing with youth—and grieved that she was so fearful of aging.  Little did I know that within ten years, Botox—and fillers and peels and the knife—would become as common and accessible as a gym membership, and women in their twenties would begin their muscle-paralyzing, face-altering regime in a race against time. I would watch countless actresses freeze their faces into expressionless but photo-perfect stills. I would also watch older Christian women suddenly look ten years younger, with plump cheeks and taut mouths. And I would look into the mirror myself and wonder, What if I could get rid of these sagging jowls and deepening lines? And what happens if I choose not to do anything and end up looking twenty years older than my peers? ~ ~ ~ Before my first cancer diagnosis at age 41, I was often told how young I looked for my age. I think subconsciously it made me feel special, perhaps even a bit superior, to look younger than some of my peers. But a five-year journey through cancer has changed all that: I’ve lost my head full of hair—twice—along with my eyebrows and eyelashes, healthy skin, and bright eyes. There have been weeks at a time when I’ve looked like an 80-year-old man. These losses have touched the very core of my identity as a woman, revealing just how deep my desire for youthful beauty truly is. I’ve alternately grieved and feared, felt shame and sometimes even despaired over my reflection in the mirror.  But my grieving has prompted me to pray a big prayer:  God, give me a beauty that doesn’t make sense to this world—a beauty that shines and even grows through all of this, and that ultimately points to you. When people see me, let them think, She’s not beautiful by cultural standards, but she has a compelling beauty—and I want to know where it comes from. Even as I’ve mourned the loss of my youthful features and the way chemo has hyper-aged my face, I’ve marveled to watch God answer my prayer in spades. He’s slowly been freeing me from my self-obsession, working miracles in my heart and forging a new confidence in me that literally shows on my face. He’s tenderly held my face in his hands and said, Those who look to Me are radiant with joy; their faces will never be ashamed. (Psalm 34:5) ~ ~ ~ As I look to God, my face becomes more radiant and unashamed, and this results in a beauty that doesn’t begin and end with me. My face was created, with all its intricate muscles and movements, to be a powerhouse of joy, empathy, understanding, and love. In his book, Transforming Fellowship, Chris Coursey writes, In the Bible, to have God’s face is to have life, joy and blessing while the absence of God’s face is equated with death, abandonment and rejection. It is no accident that the face is where joy starts and stops . . . With forty-three muscles, the face is an ideal platform to convey our love and express our delight toward one another” (p.52).  Each of our facial muscles were designed by God for a purpose, and when they are working together for that purpose, true indestructible beauty results. It’s a beauty that is relational and others-centered. It’s a beauty that doesn’t walk into a room worrying, “What do they think about how I look?” but rather, “How can I connect with and care for them?”  Botox and fillers and peels and the like are not inherently moral issues (I’m not writing this article to convince you never to use them). But for me, they present three intrinsic problems: by altering my face to perpetually erase signs of my true age, I’m communicating— 1. “I’m not grateful for every year I’ve been given here. I’d like to pretend I’ve only lived 30 years instead of 47.” (In light of a terminal diagnosis, this feels almost tragic.) 2. “I’m willing to prioritize feeling better about myself at the expense of caring for the people around me.” 3. “This life, this moment, is what matters most.” With my remaining days here, I want to wield the power of my face for the good of others. I want to use every muscle and wrinkle and line to express compassion to a hurting friend, joy at seeing another human, even hilarity over the comedic aspects of life! I want my husband and son to see my love for them all over my face, to see how happy I am to be with them.  Can you imagine if we women leaned into this kind of loving beauty? What if we refused to live under the crushingly high standards society has set for us—superficial-beauty standards that require us to alter the very function of our faces to feel good about ourselves—and instead celebrated aged beauty, wrinkled joy, and faces that use all 43 muscles to love others? What if we chose

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person on cliff
Poetry

Mystery

June 14, 2022 Mystery— Living in theIn-betweenThe unknownThe not-yet Shadow, substanceLong and shortHandspan, breath…Infinite Holding on andLetting goOpen handedLingering Fragile, fearfulUnmoved, strongLaughing joyBitter drink Hoping long andgrieving slowSleepless nightsMercies dawn Straining forwardDoubled downKneeling, prostrateFighting on Misery andMiraclesHaunting hoursHoly days Pain and promiseLoss and loveBreathless, burdenedGreatest grace Past and futureEternal nowDeath is almostHistory In-betweenHere and ThereHe is foundIn mystery.

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Beauty

The Woman in the Mirror

The Woman in the Mirror tells me I’m almost 44. Which is crazy because just yesterday I was 33. And the day before that I was 22. But there’s no denying it: once-covert wrinkles now flaunt themselves; previously perky-and-woke skin now slumbers. It’s all kinds of awkward to age, people. Even my hormones have formed an alliance with my hair roots—to overthrow any last vestiges of youth. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely adore being in my forties. I love getting older, and I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. But in a culture that worships the ruthless tyrant Ageless—and with a heart prone to obsess over Self—I wage a daily war between lies and truth. Lies say the greatest compliment I can receive is, “You look so young for your age! I never would have guessed you’re in your forties!” (Even today, on TV in the doctor’s office, a famous model offered me a special age-defying potion. She said there’s a magical fruit in the south of France that will take ten years off my face.) But Truth says I’m an image-bearer of The Most Beautiful One—and by beholding him, I become like him. My spirit, the very essence of who I am, grows more beautiful in his presence. Lies say women lose stock as they age. Truth says these wrinkles represent some pretty amazing chapters in my story—chapters I wouldn’t give up for all the youthful looks in the world. (Why would I want to be mistaken for 34 when I’m so grateful for every one of these 44 years?) Lies say your body is your worth. Your looks are your currency. Truth says this life is just a shadow of the breathtaking reality to come. Aging is the passing of the shadow, the coming of all that is good and lasting. So, when I’m tempted to resent how hard it is to maintain muscle these days, how my eyes seem to wax gibbous, or how my jowls are sinking into my neck, I catch myself. These wrinkles are my glory! Every altercation of age is a testimony to God’s good work in my life, to a heart that he is beautifying each day. I hope that as I live into the fullness of middle age, the best compliment I receive will be, “You are radiant with Jesus. I see him in and through you, and it is beautiful.” Bring it on, 44. (Now if only I could make peace with my gray roots….) ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” Psalm 34:5 “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” 2 Corinthians 4:16 “A human is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” Psalm 144:4

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Cancer

The gift of cancer

Four months ago I found a lump in my breast. And the Spirit clearly said, “This lump is a gift.” ~ ~ ~ This summer was the first time in a decade that I felt well. I started sleeping, I had energy, the aches and pains of chronic illness were minimal. On top of that, my son’s health had improved enough for us to experience the edges of “normalcy.” My husband and I looked at each other and whispered with relief, “We’re not in crisis mode anymore.” So on that mid-summer morning with a threatening lump at my fingertips, I wondered through frightened tears, What if this is cancer? After all we have been through, what if we’re about to face our biggest health crisis yet? God wouldn’t do that, would he? ~ ~ ~ We began a long and complicated testing process. Some days I had all the peace in the world—miraculous calm and confidence in God’s goodness. Other days I couldn’t loosen fear’s vise-grip on my heart. Don’t make me walk this, Lord, I begged him. And then just as quickly: But if this is where You are going, I want to go with You. I don’t want to miss out on what You’re doing. Even in the scariest moments, holding my breath for that decisive phone call, I knew he was with me. And as I hid myself in him during those waiting weeks, he confirmed again and again, “This lump is a gift.” What kind of gift, I didn’t yet know. I hoped for the best, but readied my heart for the worst. Because what if the worst was the gift? ~ ~ ~ I’ve lost several dear ones to cancer in recent years. Two to breast cancer. I’ve watched the slow dying process and know that the worst can be cruel. I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to lose my breasts and my hair, prematurely age, and suffer more aches and pains. What comes naturally to me is the Art of Preservation. I want to save my life, not lose it. But looking back at 41 years of life, filled with various trials that have preceded this one, I can say with confidence: It’s always been in the losing—the surrendering—that I have found Life. ~ ~ ~ It would be easy to say, “Nothing prepares you for a cancer diagnosis”—but it wouldn’t be true. God has been preparing me for the past 19 months. In April 2015, I resolved to address some areas of emotional immaturity in my life (namely, how to maintain my joyful identity in the midst of relational conflict), and I began working tirelessly through Life Model Works’ amazing resources. I saw grace and growth like never before. Then, at the beginning of this year, I had a renewed appetite to read books about people who have suffered with joy and courage. I devoured one biography after another—I couldn’t get enough. On top of that, God had me praying through the Psalms, which allowed me to tread every square inch of my life in truth. My Abba and I, we covered so much territory together between March and July. I experienced the Spirit’s power as never before, and was keenly aware of his purposes in my life. So when I sat in my doctor’s office on a Tuesday afternoon early this month, I was ready for the diagnosis: Cancer. ~ ~ ~ It is in our human nature to be constantly surprised by life’s hardships. To ask “why me?” But Christ modeled a life of joyful suffering—and then called us to follow in his footsteps. Christ came to give his life as a ransom for many. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. But!—for the joy set before him he endured the worst suffering the world has ever known. My diagnosis is not the worst suffering I can imagine. Far from it. (I could quickly recite for you a list of far worse scenarios!) But still it feels like too much in some moments. On the darker days, my heart has echoed the Psalmist’s: “All Your waves and breakers have swept over me.” A decade of numerous intense trials has not earned us a season of ease and pleasure. Instead, the storm rages on. But as C.H. Spurgeon said, “I have learned to kiss the wave that dashes me against the Rock of Ages.” These forcible waves, they carry me to the One who says, “Peace. Be still.” ~ ~ ~ Many of our friends have asked us how our six-year-old son, Jeremy, is doing with all of this. To state the obvious, it’s hard. We decided early on in the testing process that we’d share frankly with him—but we’d do it in such a way that hopefully modeled joy and trust in Jesus. We want him to learn how to navigate suffering with an enormous view of God. To know the way back to peace from intense negative emotions. The night we received my official diagnosis, Jeremy had tears and hugged me tight. I locked eyes with him and said, “This is hard, isn’t it, Bud? It’s not good news. But God is with us, and He turns everything for our good. Everything. So we don’t need to fear. And God is going to use this in your life in amazing ways.” Jeremy paused, then asked us to read the story of The Fiery Furnace. My husband Eddie read the account in Daniel 3, which includes Nebuchadnezzar gasping, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” Eddie closed the Bible and after another pause, Jeremy said, “There are four of us in this family.” God doesn’t waste suffering even on a six-year-old. He’s growing a tender heart strong through the uncertainty. He’s teaching joyful courage to a little man who may need it in his

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man sitting in front of window
anxiety

God is with me in my panic attack

I was 25 years old when I scored my dream job—working as an editor on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. After growing up in California, I fell head-over-heels in love with the East Coast and decided I’d stay put. Until I landed in the ER at 3:00 a.m. one morning with what I thought was a heart attack. I hadn’t slept in three days and my heart was racing, burning, palpitating. Even when I lay motionless in bed, I felt like I was running a marathon. I gasped for breath. I was exhausted. Docs ran multiple tests and X-rays, but in the absence of anything conclusive they sent me on my way: “This can happen to people with long-and-thin frames like yours.” I left the ER that day with no idea how to slow my body long enough to get a few hours of sleep. Soon I had to quit my job and fly home to California. That was a dark season of my life, to be sure. And it was the beginning of a new reality for me. Eventually my “heart-attack–insomnia” bouts were diagnosed as panic attacks, and for the past sixteen years they have dotted the landscape of my life. Panic attacks have been a source of both grief and grace. Grief, because they are terrifying and painful and disorienting and exhausting. Grace, because through them God has humbled my proud heart and taught me to trust less in myself and more in Him. When Asaph says, “My flesh and my heart may fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever,” I get it. Boy, do I get it. I’ve learned a lot along this broken way. I’ve been able to identify the biggest triggers for my panic attacks. I’ve come to understand the great need I have for healthy life habits. I’ve passionately pursued emotional and relational maturity in areas of my life where I’ve long been deficient. And I’ve learned that we are wholistic creatures—God made us both body and soul. Imagine sharing the gospel with a starving person without first meeting their physical needs. It would be unkind and ineffectual, to say the least. In a similar way, if you’re in the midst of panic and I tell you “Don’t be anxious for anything” before I address your physical symptoms—I ultimately fail to care for you. First let’s deal with the panic, then your heart will be calm enough to hear life-giving truth. Perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve learned is that God is happy to be with me, even in the most terrifying moments of anxiety. He is here. He has everything I need for this. Some helpful handles God hasn’t given me a shortcut through panic. He cares more for my long-term growth than for quick-fixes that bring momentary relief but leave me unchanged. Along the way He has graciously equipped me with some very helpful handles—that minimize the frequency and severity of my panic attacks. I want to share some of these with you. I’m not a doctor, so I’ll leave issues of medication, exercise, and diet in the hands of the professionals. But these are simple means of turning to God (physically and emotionally) in order to not just survive anxiety, but to also know and love Him better through it. God is bringing much beauty out of my ashes, and if some of that beauty can spill over onto you, this 16-year journey would be well worth it. Life-giving friends Typically when I’m in the throes of panic there are layers of stressful people and circumstances in my life. Avoiding those circumstances and people may not be possible (nor even wise), but I can counterbalance them by spending extra time with joyful, life-giving friends. These are dear ones who are tender to my weaknesses and love me in all my mess. They lower their expectations. They light up when they see me. Time with them reminds me of who I am, who God is, and that there’s life beyond this panic. I notice that my heart rate slows, my shoulders relax, and my obsessive thoughts lose momentum. God has made us for joyful relationship, and the worst thing I can do when I’m navigating extreme anxiety is to isolate myself from those who love me. A thankful heart One of the greatest helps in dealing with panic has been practicing appreciation in three specific ways. I stole these from two must-read books: Joy Starts Here by Jim Wilder, and Transforming Fellowship by Chris Coursey. Appreciation memories.  When I’m riddled with anxiety, I recall two specific memories of when I experienced amazing peace and joy (I’ve named them “Panera Bread” and “D.C. Trip”) and I relive them in as much detail as I can: where I was; what I smelled, heard, saw, tasted; who I was with, and so on. Doing this reminds me (1) what it feels like to be calm, (2) that God has been so good to me before, and (3) that this momentary panic is not the end of the story. List of 10.  I keep a list of 10 things I’m grateful for. It includes my morning cup of coffee, the beautiful view from my bedroom window, the daily routines I enjoy with my family, and the grace I receive from my husband every day. I rehearse it when my thoughts feel panicky. The goal is to practice gratitude with such frequency (some suggest 5 minutes, 3 times a day) that my brain learns a new normal, and my body can begin to return to an appreciative and calm state more quickly over time, with practice. 3X3X3.  When I’m ramped up and just can’t seem to slow down (and I’m dreading a sleepless, anxious night), just before bed I recall aloud 3 things I’m thankful for about that day, 3 things I’m thankful for about my husband, and 3 things I’m thankful for about God. This sounds ridiculously simple, but it has an immediate effect on me. A relaxed body Sometimes a full-body massage can work wonders in the midst of panic. (On a side note, Chinese reflexology offers much more affordable versions of fancy spa

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