Please Play This Song at My Funeral

I’m no scientist or doctor, but when you’re doing pretty much anything in life, I think it’s important to breathe.

In high school, my friend Holly and I cheered together. I’ll never forget the day she moved from flier (the one on top of the pyramid) to base (the one holding the flier in the air). She is a tiny person — her heart is the only big thing about her — so the day she decided to be the muscles of the group shocked us all. I remember helping her, coaching her through the process. Bend at the knees, don’t arch your back. 

After every dismount Holly would let out the biggest gush of air from her mouth. Guuuuuuhhh. I couldn’t figure out how  such a loud noise could come from such a small person.

Then came time to add the cheers to the stunts. Yelling for our football team and throwing human bodies into the air — at the same time.

No words came from Holly’s mouth. Her grand exhales came after holding her breath for the entire stunt sequence. Ready, one, two, inhale… no exhale. No breath until the stunt ended and her flier landed safely on the floor.

“Don’t forget to breathe, Holly!” our coach would remind her during practice. “You have to keep breathing!”

Today, I need someone reminding me of the same thing.

A couple weekends ago, two of my best friends became one in marriage — and I couldn’t be happier. On the drive home from Austin, I spent time reflecting, praying, and thanking God for the people in my life.

Then Gungor’s This Is Not The End came on my car stereo. At the words, “This is not our last, this is not our last breath,” the tears began streaming down my cheeks.

Why that song? Why those words? I had heard them a dozen times before. What was it about the reassurance of breath — a job I typically leave up to my lungs and brain to work out — that broke me?

2013 has been one tough year. In desperation, I had gasped for air, taking in all my lungs could hold. I became lightheaded and dizzy, and lost sight of all truth. Instead, I started believing lies of inadequacy and disappointment. I have been holding my breath for jobs, for relationships, for provision, for heartaches, for health, for the way it should be 

Stale air continued to cycle and recycle. I couldn’t exhale because what if those last breaths were all I had.

Eventually, my face turned purple and I could not even see the life right in front of me.

I never let that last breath go to invite the fresh breath in.

There on Highway 290, I sat puffy-eyed and splotchy while this song reminded me of something I had forgotten along the way: there is another breath after this one. There is always one more breath.

Even in death there is never a last breath; life continues in the heavenly realm. Life started when Adam first drew in the breath of God, the inhale, and it continued when he exhaled the kingdom breath out into the garden.

There will be another inhale, but we have to let go of the breath we’re holding onto first.

There is always one more breath. 

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This is not the end, this is not the end of this. We will open our eyes wide, wider.

This is not our last, this is not our breath. We will open our mouths wide, wider.

This is not the end, this is not the end of us. We will shine like the stars: bright, brighter.

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The Summer I Didn’t Plan

Sometimes, there are decisions that don’t change much of anything. White or wheat. Green sweater or blue sweater. Then, there are decisions that change everything.

On one of my last nights in the South, we drove with the windows down and the summer breeze tossed my hair. We were on our way to meet our friend Allison for fro-yo at the gas station — a typical weeknight for us. It’s how we cope after a bad day, or how we celebrate a good day. No matter the reason, we are most likely sporting yoga pants and top knots — and in the case of Courtney, the infamous eskimos.

As we drove, hugging the curves of the winding back roads, I caught a whiff of a memory from my days at summer camp.

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As a child, I went to girl scout camp a time or two (but quit when I discovered being a girl scout does not equal free cookies). In high school, I spent several days each summer at church camp, but never summer camp. No, those memories have been reserved for a different time in my life: the college years.

Sure, college had its football games, sororities, all-nighters, and What-A-Burger breakfast taquitos, but one of the most defining elements in my personal development during my late teens and early twenties is summer camp.

Every summer in college and for eight more months after I graduated, I worked for Sky Ranch. Early mornings, even later nights, the lake, the blob, the dining hall, the cheers, the cabin rituals. I actually got paid (albeit next-to-nothing) to love on high schoolers and talk about Jesus.

I can still taste the gooey s’mores and hear the sound of the crackling fire under a starry sky. I remember my sun-kissed skin, the moonlight bouncing off the lake, the laughter, the dance parties, the lasting friendships. Each summer was so definitive in developing who I am today.

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That first summer, I was 19 and in desperate need of cutting some soul ties with a guy back home. Wide-eyed, I moved into cabin 32, Chamberlain Hall, my new home. Fortunately, my senior counselor was a seasoned veteran who gave me the confidence to do some crazy things for the sake of the kingdom.

At 19, I learned to live beyond my body’s physical needs and to love teenage girls like crazy. I got sweet one-piece tan lines and my first pair of Chacos; I fell in love with a boy, and made life-long friends. I learned to belay and do CPR, and discovered more of who I am than I ever had before.

That first summer, I learned who God is and how he sees me. I had my first real experience with a mentor relationship and with a Christian organization that takes good care of its staff. I stayed up late nights on the front porch of the cabin talking with girls about everything from summer crushes to self-mutilation and why bad things happen.

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The next summer, I learned about discipline and leadership, and came up with over 100 Native American names for cabin initiation with some of the best co-counselors a girl could ask for.

At 21, I learned even more on leadership and discipleship. I got creative in ways I never thought possible. I had an incredible co-leader who showed me patience  and taught me more than he realizes. I practiced mourning with the people closest to me — while still clinging to the hope that celebration is never out of reach.

That final summer, I headed for the San Juans just two days after graduation. I may have earned a college degree, but man did I have a lot to learn that summer. I never knew my heart could grow any bigger or my Sky Ranch family expand any wider until my summer in Colorado. Like my mom always says, “God is everywhere, but I think we are closer to him in the mountains.”

And I nearly missed out on all that because it wasn’t part of the plan.

I had wanted to go somewhere else, be someone else. At 19, I wanted something different, but I had a couple friends who urged me to interview with Sky Ranch. That one interview, that one decision, changed the game for me.  I know I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without having spent those years rubbing shoulders with some spiritual moms, dads, brothers, and sisters.

As I say thanks for the monument Sky Ranch is in my life,  I am reminded that Sky Ranch was not part of my planbut it was one of the best plan-busting things I ever did.

There is no place like summer camp.

How 8 Days With College Kids Brought Me Back to Life

“Breathe. You’ve cried only twice today, Carrie, that’s improvement,” so the self-pep talks go these days.

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Wake up. Go to work. Sit at desk. Computer screen, internet, email. Meetings. Go home. Repeat. That’s been my version of “keeping my head above water” in the last couple weeks after returning back to Georgia from two of the most emotional weeks in Texas.

I was ready to give up on just about everything.

Then I boarded another plane and things changed.

My ticket read Guatemala City, Guatemala. Everyone who had been to Antigua before could speak only of their love affairs with her and her cobblestone streets, bright-as-the-sun hues, and magnificent landscapes. If possible, I would call it, “love before first sight.”

Fall in love I did. And, in only the way love can do, I awoke from my slumber.

When I look back on my time in  Guatemala and Costa Rica, I will remember more than delightful coffee.

I will remember the 25 teens and 20-somethings who reminded me of some truth I had lost sight of, some faithfulness I’d forgotten, and some hope I’d given up on.

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In eight days, these college-aged Passport participants took me back to the heart of why I do what I do. Why I packed my bags, left my family, and moved across the country. Why the tears and heartaches and disappointments are all worth it.

They are just like me and yet so different. But our hearts are the same: we have all chosen to ditch the status quo for a God-adventure. We have all been wrecked by the fierce love of Jesus and want to share that love with the world. We want to bring kingdom wherever we go.

We have stood up, stomped our feet, raised our hands, and shouted from chairs that God is good, God is love, God is worth it. God has a plan.

I just needed a change of scenery and fresh voices to remind me.

When I arrived I was pale from a dark, cold winter. While here in Central America, sun-kissed by students’ zeal, color has returned to my cheeks after what seemed to be months of lifelessness.

My feet are dirty. My face is sweaty. My hair is a hot mess. I am believing God for big things and resting in his presence, finding satisfaction there.

I am living like a real missionary again.

A Choice Drink for Victory

Then all the people went away to eat choice food and drink, and celebrated with great joy because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. Nehemiah 8:12

“Wait, Jesus is coming back?”

I remember that light bulb moment as surprise swept across her face. Her eyes, wide and bright, looked straight into mine, searching for an answer. “He’s alive? He’s coming back?”

“Yes, he is,” I assured her.

For the teenage girl in my cabin that summer, it all became real sitting on the picnic tables by Sky Lake, and she could not hold back her excitement. Turning to her cabin mates she exclaimed, “Did you know? Can you believe it?!” For the rest of the week, she told everyone she could: Jesus is coming back! For real!

In the dining hall, on the blob, going down the waterslide: Hey, did you know? He’s alive!

Brittany, like the people of Israel, deemed this newly discovered information worth celebrating. When the Israelites heard and understood the Law of Moses they celebrated with a week-long feast! (Where do I sign up?)

Remember discovering something, be it knowledge or experience, and the feeling it stirred within you? Like riding a horse for the first time, that first sip of a good wine, your first kiss.

A wise woman once said, “Information mixed with an encounter becomes a revelation, and that’s when transformation happens.”

If this season has been about anything it’s learning. Learning a new craft, learning to be broken, learning to be loved, and always learning more and more about God: who he is and how he sees me.

I am finally understanding and experiencing some things for the first time. Because of the brokenness and vulnerability I’ve reached lately, I figured

it is due time I start celebrating the victories. 

Information, encounters, revelations, transformations. The stuff made known to me.

Nope, still not perfect, I have yet to arrive, and I will probably cry at least once or twice by the end of the week. But what is this life I’m living if I cannot see the victories in everyday? Will I allow the fear of failing at the slightest glimpse of weakness keep me from celebrating my victory? No, sir.

Cheers to victory, I raise my glass of choice drink.

To the beauty of the sunshine dancing across tree branches colored in fall-flavored hues. To brownies covered in Blue Bell peppermint ice cream. To driving with the windows down. To crying with friends over Skype though thousands of miles lie between us. To late-night conversations on the balcony. To writing in moleskine journals. To coffee dates and lunch gatherings and dinner parties. To being held by the people who love me most. To the reprimands and hard questions that always challenge. To the little hallelujahs whispered in the darkest of nights.

To gleaning from the harvest and in the shadow of death.

To walking in my identity as a daughter, a worshiper, a prophet, a lover, a believer.

To freedom.

To knowing that I am enough.

To God be the glory.

Cheers.

How to Fake Your Own Death

I couldn’t breathe.

I felt my body being pulled out of the water and onto a backboard. I heard the Velcro of the neck brace pull apart just before someone lifted my head and stabilized my neck.

My eyes squeezed shut.

Sounds of whistles blowing and worried voices filled the air. I tried not to move.

“Has anyone called for an ambulance?” I heard one lifeguard shout to another. “Yeah, they’re on their way,” the response.

Stay still, just a little longer. You can do this.

“Okay, everyone calm down this is just a drill. Carrie, you may open your eyes now,” the Programs Manager announced to the crowd that formed around me. “Everything is fine. She’s not hurt.”

I faked it. The whole thing.

In a swimming pool full of high schoolers at summer camp, I jumped off the trapeze and didn’t come up when I hit the water. I did the dead man’s float until someone came in after me. The Programs Manager and I schemed the whole thing as a drill to test the lifeguards.

A lie, a trick, a sham. A “drill.”

Recently, my roommate said something I think rings true with many of us: “I am fine to talk about the stuff in my past that I’ve overcome, it’s the stuff of today I don’t always want to open up about.”

The stuff that we’re “over” is easier to talk to people about, it’s not a part of us anymore and we’ve improved and we’re great now. Talking about the stuff of today means admitting we are not perfect.

The truth is most of us are just faking our own deaths.

Death to envy, bitterness, insecurities, fears, addictions. We trick people into believing the old mess is dead. Done. Gone forever.

I am really good at faking my own death. I pretend to not care when I am hurting, to be independent when I am lonely, to say, “It’s fine,” when it absolutely is not fine. The old me used to care or feel this way, but not anymore, not Carrie 2.0, she has moved on from all of that.

Wrong.

I still hurt. I still feel lonely sometimes. I still get jealous when she gets everything handed to her on a silver platter, while I have nothing to show for my work. I am still prideful, performance-driven, and selfish most days, but I will talk about these issues like they are a thing of the past. Pat me on the back, I’ve defeated resentment! (Not!)

Now that I’ve found a safe place and my blocks are scattered across the floor, I think I am done faking it, the death of my own mess. Gone are the days of pretending I have it all together and my only faults are from the past. I am not admitting defeat — I am admitting I need help, I am not perfect and never will be.

And I am thankful to say I am surrounded by people who love me enough to to keep me from covering up my flaws and instead work toward stepping into actual greatness each day; people who challenge me — not to be perfect — just more like Jesus.

No faking.

To die will be an awfully big adventure. -James M. Barrie

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Friends Beneath the Sheets

In the same week my Jenga tower collapsed, my roommate built a fort in our living room.

I have long searched for a safe place. A refuge. A place to be me. And unknowingly, a place to be messy.

This week, I found that safety in the form of twinkling lights and linens clothespinned together and draped from the the ceiling. A return to childhood, a time of blissful innocence where anything is possible and I can be whatever I choose.

For a moment, I found myself living in a fairytale.

If you know my love for dinner parties, you know I couldn’t pass up an opportunity for a dinner party in a fort. We indulged in fried things and fresh things and belly-laughed when somebody stole the caramel straight from Danny’s apple.

By the end of the night, the dishes were stacked a mile high and flour dusted the counter tops like winter’s first snow.

Under the sheets of the fort that night, people were nourished body and soul. And I felt safe.

This fort made of sheets, clothes pins, pillows, and blankets is a safe place. Within its walls I find refuge, comfort, peace. I’ve sat with friends and I’ve sat here alone. Beneath these sheets, I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve prayed on my knees and on my face under the linens and lights. Under the sheets that make up this fort, I have been the most real I have ever been with my friends, with God, and with myself.

Lately, I’ve been frustrated with how messy I have become and am always telling myself to lock it up and pull it together. I am sick of being a burden to others when I am supposed to be the strong one.

When I looked back on that night and the many nights leading up to it, God whispered something to my heart:

You’ve been this messy all along, but you have never felt safe enough to open up and let others in to see it, not even yourself.

And that is when I suddenly felt okay with not being okay.

Love takes risks. Vulnerability opens you to feel both the good and bad. As much as it hurts, I have to be glad that it does. It means I am finally in a safe enough place to be open, to share, to feel, to cry and be hurt, to not be okay.

I am thankful for my fort, my safety, my friends. The people who have held my hand as we’ve entered into this safe place together.

I love these people. So much.

And I don’t know what my life would be without them, without the safety of my fort. Without the twinkling lights always reminding me of the beauty of life no matter how painful, as long as I am surrounded by people I love who love me back — no matter how messy it gets.

It is painful, yes, all growth is. But the silver lining I am defending is turning gold, soon to illuminate my skies brighter than the darkness of my sorrows.

When the Last Piece is Pulled From Your Jenga Tower

Remember the game Jenga?

The game’s objective is to remove as many wooden blocks from a tower without letting it fall. You take turns with your opponent and if the tower falls at your play, you lose.

You remove each block with steady hands and give a big exhale when you realize the tower is still standing. You didn’t even know you were holding your breath until all the air comes rushing through your mouth and nostrils with a sigh of relief. As sweat falls from your brow  you think to yourself, “Really, pull yourself together, fool! It’s a game.” (Or is that just me?)

The past few weeks, months maybe, my life has been a Jenga tower.

One by one, blocks have been pulled from different parts of me. A struggle here, a heart string there. Family members are sick, friends are hurting, and the goodbyes never seem to stop.

Some of the blocks needed to go. Blocks marked with indifference, defense mechanisms, and lies. Nonetheless, these blocks were once a part of me, leaving me a little wobbly without them.

Leaving me vulnerable. Raw. Exposed.

Last week, someone removed the final block, the linchpin piece from my tower and it all came crashing down.

And I want to tell you I am writing this from the other side, from a place of recovery and reflection. But I am not. I write this from the thick of the apocalypse and pain. And tears.

But I realize in the thick of it is exactly where I need to be. I’ve spent my life getting over it and moving on without ever dealing with anything. Being the strong one, the stable one, the one who has it all together so everyone else can be a mess.

Today, the blocks are scattered across the floor. Jumbled, messy, disheveled. I’ll rescue the ones worth holding onto and throw out the ones that are not part of who I want to be.

I will build my tower again. But not today and not tomorrow either.

Don’t Come Crying to Me

There was a lot of blood.

I fought back the tears as my brother helped me hobble inside. I knew I shouldn’t be playing on the folding chair that way, but I am not one to so quickly turn away from fun. And a little childlike rebellion.

“Kids, stop playing on those and when you get hurt, don’t come crying to me,” my dad hollered to us.

Busted.

It’s funny how I didn’t care enough about obedience to stop playing, but decided to mind my father at the words, “Don’t come crying to me.”

Waiting for my mom to come home, I hid in the bathroom for what seemed like hours, balled up on the cool tile floor— pink tile like any good home built in the 50s. Chris helped me clean up the wound as best as two young kids could and we waited.

I couldn’t let him find me. I didn’t want my dad to know I hurt myself doing the very thing he warned me not to do.

When Mom finally came home, I lost all composure and collapsed into her arms. Between sniffles, I explained to her why I had an absurd amount of toilet paper and band-aids stuck to my right knee.

“Why didn’t you tell your dad you were bleeding?”

“He said not to.”

“He said what?!”

“He told us not to come crying to him when we got hurt. So I didn’t.”

I still have a giant scar on my knee from that backyard incident and this story is still at the top of the list of my family’s favorites about me.

But this scar reminds me of something all-too-familiar in my life today: I am caught in a battle between performance and grace.

I want to do the right thing. I do for a while. I inevitably fail. I am my toughest critic, lending little to no grace for myself.

A life motivated by performance is a life lived in fear. Fear of messing up, failing, disappointing. This is how I’ve lived most of my life whether I’d like to admit it or not.

A life motivated by performance is an effort to earn salvation, which is impossible, yet sometimes the thought of accepting all the grace that God has seems just as unlikely for me.

It’s a simple analogy, but a message I’ve long overlooked. I cut my knee. Because of my disobedience I hid from my father, the only one who could help me.

That day my dad didn’t scold me for my defiance, he held me close and made me promise never to hide my wounds from him again.

And I’m certain my heavenly father is doing the exact same.

How Nail Polish Taught Me to Process

I am at a coffee shop. You know, the artsy, it’s hip-to-be-grunge type hang out.

I go to the ladies room.

Burglar bars. Burglar bars over the window.

What kind of neighborhood is this?

Deteriorated and rusted, I couldn’t tell if these bars were there for safety purposes or some kind of antique flair—or both. Either way, the sighting of these bars didn’t make me feel any safer. But then again, I’ve been in worse conditions in my life, involving much lower safety and restroom ratings.

This would not keep me from later enjoying my dirty almond chai.

I look up at the bars again.

The most recent layer of paint, which has to be about a decade old, was peeling enough to reveal the coat underneath.

This sight took me back to my adolescent years when I was too lazy to deal with the upkeep of my nail polish. Truthfully, I have very little patience when it comes to painting my nails, but love the way it looks too much not to do it. What a conundrum.

When I was younger, instead of removing the old, cracked polish before painting on a fresh new color, I simply painted right over any remaining polish. Eventually, this polish chipped revealing two or three different colors on my preteen fingers. Real cute.

Why did I ever think this was a good idea?

Clearly I was too busy waiting for the dial-up to connect so I could chat with my friends on AIM to ever take care of my nails.

Or maybe I was caring for my Tamagotchi pet.

It’s funny how we grow older and trick ourselves into believing that we handle our adult problems with adult solutions. Truth is, I take care of most of my issues now the same way I took care of my nail polish at 11 years old, only less glitter is involved.

Rather than deal with it, get out the nail polish remover and cotton balls, I just paint right over it with a new color.

Since returning home from the World Race, I have learned the importance of dealing with my stuff and how long I’ve just painted over it rather than process through it.

Processing takes time, discipline, intention.

I don’t wake up in the morning with a flashing light bulb over my head saying, “Eureka! That’s why I feel this way, what a deep-rooted wound!” or “Aha! That prophetic word makes perfect sense to me, I know exactly what to do now.”

Not so much.

The things worth knowing, understanding, and believing— those are the things worth digging around for, worth the time it takes to process. Worth the time it takes to get out the acetone and cotton balls and do some cleaning up before painting on that fresh, new color.

When I Just Don’t Feel Like Believing

Several days ago my aunt, Cheryl, emailed an old blog post from Kisses from Katie to me. In the post, Katie describes the journey of a burn victim coming to know Jesus Christ as savior and lover of his soul.

252 days of wrapping and talking and laughing and crying later, new skin covered this once dead area. The leg that so many thought was lost could walk and even run. And the man that so many thought was hopeless had been sober for over 6 months. A week later, this physically healed man walked into my kitchen as [he] grinned from ear to ear. “I believe it,” he announced, “today I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” Simple as that.

These are the reminders I need when I see such immense pain and complete devastation of our depraved world.

Traveling the world allows you to see the wonders and beauty God spoke into existence and the creativity He placed inside man to design with our own hands and it’s breathtaking.

But what equally steals my breath is the unexplainable sorrow and darkness of the world: the starvation, poverty, injustice, sickness and death, perversion, inequality, and filth.

The Killing Fields in Cambodia. Red Light districts in Thailand, Malaysia and India. Societal outcasts of the Northern Territory, Australia. Communism in Transnistria. Heavy spiritual darkness in Nepal. HIV/AIDS in Swaziland. Starvation in Mozambique. Child soldiers, orphans, widows, lost, dying, marginalized…

Where is the justice we’ve been promised, the redemption our souls cry out for? Where is this so-called “God of love” in the midst of the hopelessness?Floating Village, Cambodia

Then I read stories like Katie’s and remember that His ways are greater than mine, His thoughts higher than my thoughts. His love is boundless and operates in a way my mind cannot conceive. And sometimes, we have to be burned, to go through the fire before this love ever has true value to us.

In many languages, there exist multiple words for love to better explain to what degree this love operates. Unfortunately, in English we’ve come to use our one word for so many varying degrees of love that it has lost its value and authenticity.

In Hebrew, there are two specific words for God’s love: ahab and chesed. The former describes a love based on the desire and feelings stirred within the lover, the great affection toward another. The latter is a love driven by unwavering commitment and loyalty. God’s heart is moved by us and His love for us is filled to capacity (which is a whole lot when you consider there’s no limits to God).

God’s love is great and beyond comprehension not just because he’s really good at it and committed to doing his job, but because he is love.

Katie’s story is such a beautiful reminder of that. To believe that there is hope in the darkness, something bigger than ourselves working out salvation for us all, that is what we must do, feel, trust, and know when everything else ceases to make sense, when it all feels like a lost cause.

It isn’t enough to trust in God’s goodness when I see it or feel it. I believe in his goodness because I trust he is good. I believe it. I believe that he has, is, and always will be, regardless of the world and my circumstances.

Eternity is in our hearts because God put it there (Ecc. 3:11), now let’s live like it.

Around here, we believe and practice the idea that you should always be sharing your story and that we are stewards of others’ stories, too. We always tell these stories no matter how big or small because you never know what kind of breakthrough you will bring to someone’s life.

Thanks for sharing, Katie and for passing the story along, Cheryl. May we all continue to be storytellers of the work God is authoring in each of our lives.