ready. aim. fire.

“We’re going to have to refer you to the oncologist.”

The words explode right there in the doctor’s office.  In a stunned fog, my mind swirls with emotions.  One word quickly rises out of the ashes….NO!

Even though my world has just been turned upside down, the doctor doesn’t let up.  He continues to fire off the bad news…

“…the ultrasound showed that you have a vascular cyst surrounding over 90% of your ovary.” He draws a picture on a piece of paper showing a normal size ovary on the right and an ovary about three times the normal size on the left.

“…the size of the cyst hasn’t changed since you received your CT scan three months ago.”  Good, right?  No, he says that this is concerning.

“…this could be a malignant tumor.” Because it’s a blood-filled cyst it means it could either be an endometrioma or a type of cancer.  No other choices.

I ask further questions to find reassurance.  He ends with…

“…I doubt this is going to be cancer but you will need to ask all of these questions to your oncologist.  I’m just not sure.”

Your oncologist?  Since when did I have an oncologist??   

I try to swallow down this moment.  I try to take His Truth and coax it down.   But sometimes fear can come snatch away the ease of swallowing.  And I find it’s one of those bitter bites in life that chokes the breath right out of me.  The feeling triggers that day.

That day when my world changed forever.  Everyone kept reassuring me everything was going to be okay; that I was just being a worrier.  People kept telling me how safe the water survival course was and reminding me of the crazy low percentage that anything bad could ever happen.  When you’re told that, and then the news of death comes literally to your doorstep, you don’t forget that.  Your world is forever changed.  You realize percentages and words don’t control a thing.  You lose faith in people telling you that, “everything is going to be alright.”  As well-intentioned as they may be, you realize you just can’t take them seriously because no one really knows everything’s going to be alright.

Here I am inside my house and the doorbell is ringing again.  I don’t know what is waiting on the other side.  Is it the news of death looming near?  I am paralyzed in fear that I am going to experience the worst case scenario again.  As a single mother, every bone in my body wants to be here with my boys to take care of them.  So I wrestle with God for days…

Wait God!  You didn’t really mean to allow this, did you?  How could you right now??   Don’t you know I am still trying to cope with my loss?  I am taken out by this news and I find myself completely paralyzed in fear of the worst.  I struggle to even read God’s promises.  I just can’t fully surrender the unknown into His hands (although I know I have no control anyways). 

One long (and I mean long) week passes and I finally meet with my oncologist.  He starts off with a positive…

“Well, I don’t think you have cancer given your age and family history.” 

As I feel some relief rush over me, I quickly remind myself...there we go again, people telling me the percentages are good.  And then the firing begins again…

“…because there is a risk that this cyst is malignant, I can’t just test it.  If it is cancer, it could spread.  The safest thing to do is to remove your left ovary, fallopian tube, and the cyst and then test it.”

“…it’ll probably be about five small incisions.”

“…If it is malignant, we will stage the cancer while you are under and then we will need to discuss the likely outcome of a hysterectomy.” 

He ends with some reassurance that he doesn’t feel like that will be the outcome and I try to take it in and think “glass-full” type scenarios.  But because he can’t promise me anything, fear still takes hold.

Surgery gets scheduled for just 10 days later.

My mind transforms into an absolute battlefield as the days pass.   I can’t let go of the what ifs.

I vent to my mother-in-law, “I wish at this point I could convince myself to just trust all the promises and let go but I’m struggling.  Life can be hard.  I believe God is here and all powerful; I believe He is sovereign over everything.  I know sin and these hard places are not His perfect plan but I also believe He controls everything and can stop anything He wants.  So I’m struggling with why He’s allowing me to face this right now.  I know there’s a bigger plan but it’s just hard being in the thick of it.”

She replies with some great wisdom, “Maybe when we ask God why He is making us suffer, we are asking the wrong question.  Maybe He wants us to ask, what am I supposed to do with this mess I am in?  Or what do You want to do through me with this mess?”

In the midst of the battlefield of the mind, I try to heed her advice.  I ponder the questions and when I can step outside of myself and the fear that surrounds me, I ask God, “What do You want to do through me with this?”

I sort and sift through the wisdom and truth I receive and battle it against the unknown future ahead.  I try to cling to the truths as I feel the fear trying to knock me down.  But God is about to drive the fear out with His perfect love.  He is about to rock my world as I process through this journey.

God just IS

Remember how I told you in my last post that I have quite a bit of unfinished writings floating in my documents folder?  Well, this is one of those that I wrote in the fall of 2013 after a lot of wrestling with God.  The boys and I had a few rounds of sickness that landed us in the ER. After pointing fingers at God, He taught me the following lesson.  Little did I know that this would be preparation; just the tip of the iceberg on this lesson, and God would lead me back to this writing in a beautiful way.  I’m excited to share that story in one of my following posts.

“If you are real, then send this letter back beneath my pillow,” I scribbled on a neon pink post-it.  Grabbing it tightly, I ventured out into the wind which blew vigorously through my blonde hair. Rule-abiding ran thick through my bones and I started to hesitate in executing this plan.  But then I took a deep breath, and with hope welling up inside, I let go.  In awe, I watched that post-it soar with the wind and pirouette aimlessly down my street.   With fervor, I prayed, “God, when I wake in the morning, please, oh pretty please, put that post-it under my pillow.  Then I’ll believe in you with all my heart, and know you’re real.” 

There, in that moment, I gave God my first test...If you do this, this little thing I ask, then I’ll believe in you.

Well, morning came.  My heart sank as I lifted the pillow to see that there was no neon pink hiding there.  I even checked under my other pillow to be sure God hadn’t confused the memo.  I couldn’t understand why He didn’t follow through with His side of the deal.  It seemed perfectly logical to me. 

As I’ve thought back to this childhood memory, I’ve chuckled to myself thinking what a silly girl I was to test God in this way.  But…it hit me recently that I still do this with God.  I find myself continuing to bargain with Him; throwing “post-its” in the air and expecting God to tuck them neatly beneath my pillow.  I sometimes try to put Him into a box or make one-way deals that I think would make perfect sense.  Otherwise, I contemplate; maybe I shouldn’t trust Him anymore.  Maybe He’s not even real.

I bet you might be able to relate.  Have you ever played a bargaining game with God?  God, IF you do this…

IF you save my daughter from her drug habit, IF you cure my cancer, IF you remove the thorn, IF you keep my family safe, IF you get me this job, IF you save my marriage, IF the answer is yes, IF you keep my life comfortable, IF you take the pain away, IF you bring me a spouse…

 THEN…then what?

Then you are worthy of my trust, my belief, and my praise?

Because I was handed such a devastating loss, I have struggled a lot with bargaining; even at times, feelings of entitlement.  I’ve had many “why are you allowing more pain?” and “how could you do this to me?” moments with God.  I’ve found myself both angry and confused with God not following through on my one-way bargains. 

Through this wrestling in prayer, I’ve come back to the truth that, even as much as I try, I will never be able to wrap a finite mind around an infinite God.  God is not bounded…not by the way we feel or think, not by our hopeless situations, and certainly not by “if and then” bargains.  He just IS. 

These tough moments have led me to this pivotal point in my faith….

IF you allow my life to be hard, IF you don’t answer any of my prayers, IF you allow me to get sick, IF life is a constant struggle, THEN….

THEN, You are still worthy.  Worthy of it all: my trust, my belief, my praise.  Because You are I AM. 

I can assure you that although I wholeheartedly believe this, at times, it can be hard to put it into practice.  I think it’s because I forget to remember that there is a bigger plan at work. In those moments I find myself desiring to be God and for Him to fit into my mold.  But I’m not God.  And He’s certainly not my genie in a bottle.  I don’t get to make up what He should do and He reacts to me. 

He is the almighty God…so He chooses what He wants to do and we can choose how we react to Him.  With His help, I’m learning how to drop to my knees and praise Him through the tears.  I’m learning not to bargain, but instead to trust.  And I’m learning that, despite what my circumstances are, He is good.

our tiny hands

Just a few pieces of fish and bread. Yep, that’s what it took to interrupt six months of excuses.  You see, God’s been urging me quietly, and loudly, to write for quite some time.  He’s been beckoning me to share what He has been teaching me.  But I’ve had so many reasons why I can’t.  Life just gets in the way sometimes, doesn’t it?

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“Lord, I have so many other things to do today.  I’ll do that next week.”  And week after week, has turned into month after month…

“Lord, I really don’t have much to offer you.”

“I’m not good enough.”

Sure, I’ve tried to write.  I have about five half-finished writings.  I keep saying I need to finish them.  But there they sit, abandoned in my documents folder.  Actions sure speak louder than words, don’t they? 

All my excuses came to a halt this morning when I read this in Matthew 14:

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

This scripture leaped off the page and sucker-punched me in the gut; in a good, convicting sort of way, of course.  Sitting cross-legged in Sunday school class, I remember being amazed at what Jesus had done.  All these years, that’s what I had continued to see.  But this time I saw it in a whole new light and realized there’s much more to this story.  I focused on those meager portions; those tiny hands that held the few pieces of fish and bread.  And I thought about the disciples’ predicament and how Jesus said to the disciples, “You feed them,” fully knowing that they couldn’t…in their own strength.

It would be like realizing you forgot your credit card.  The cashier rings your total to $5000, and you look into your billfold to find only a few crumpled dollars and some change.

What you held in your hands would be totally insufficient.

But it was all you had to offer. 

Jesus could’ve laughed at the pitiful amount of food and made 5000 plus portions appear in a heartbeat.  But that’s not the way our Jesus works.

Jesus doesn’t leave the disciples, or us, hanging out on a limb to dry.  He doesn’t expect us to be able to carry out His work in our own power.  Full of grace, He says, “Bring them to me.”  He asks us, like the disciples, to give Him our meager portions.  He chooses to invite us…weak, little us…into His magnificent story.  He wants to take our insufficient efforts, whatever we can offer in our tiny human hands, and multiply them through His mighty power.  He actually welcomes our weaknesses.  In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, it says:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Throughout this grief journey, I’ve had every layer of human strength stripped from me; where many times I have found myself lying helplessly, sometimes even paralyzed, before Him.  Many people have told me that I am strong.  But that is the furthest from the truth.

I am not strong….but my God is.

Any hint of strength that you have seen in my life is only because of Him.  People have told me things like, “I could never be as strong as you are if I were in your situation.”  But the same power that is available to me is readily available to anyone, so that’s simply not true.

Today God knew I needed a little (or big) kick in the pants; a reminder that He wants me to surrender my insufficient human efforts unto Him.  So here I write, and I pray that this sacrifice from my hands is used by God to provide for a need. 

Maybe it’s that someone needs to hear that He wants you exactly as you are.  You don’t have to have your act together.  He wants you to surrender yourself before Him…your broken bits, your failures, your life...and let Him work.

Or maybe it’s that He wants someone to know that you can trust Him with your weakness; that you can step out of your comfort zone and know He is there every step of the way. 

Or maybe, like me, you just needed a little kick in the pants today; a reminder to stop making excuses and let Him use you, in whatever capacity He chooses.

twelve stones: stone #2

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         Meet my friend Josie.  A few years ago, I was blessed to be introduced to this sweet woman by this amazing story of God's grace.  I am so very thankful for Josie and the support and encouragement she's given me as I walk a similar road to hers.  Today Josie shares her stone as part of this Twelve Stones series.  Please take the time to read this miraculous story...

          In the middle of the night on June 23rd the doorbell rang.  I climbed out of bed in confusion at who could possibly be at my door at this hour.  Did my husband’s garage door opener malfunction? Was it a prank perpetrated by one of the neighborhood children?

            I scanned the peephole and saw a group of dark shadows standing outside. I opened the door to a group of friends from the 421st fighter squadron. Devastation marked all of their faces.  At that second, I understood why all of these people were standing at my door at this time of night. They were there to tell me that my husband, Capt. George-Bryan Houghton, left this world to be with the Lord in Heaven. George, an F-16 pilot for the 421st squadron at Hill AFB in Utah, was scheduled to fly in a night training mission to prepare for an upcoming deployment. It was his final flight in the F-16. His plane crashed in the Utah Test and Training Range.

            The next few days and weeks were a blur in my memory. I remember emotional pain so intense that it literally would take my breath away. This pain alternated with periods of numbness when I felt nothing. I was an empty shell most days. During this time I was inundated with the “business” of death. I helped the squadron with pictures and music for the memorial service, signed official military documents, met with the casualty officer, and many other tasks.

            People from the squadron started bringing me George’s belongings. First, I was given the contents of his locker. I rifled through his belongings searching for only one thing; George’s wedding ring. No luck. Later they drove his car home. No ring. A few days later, I was given the contents of his locker. No ring. The last of the items was brought to me by Maj. Bob Ungerman, the liaison from the 421st assigned to me to help me through this process. He gave me an envelope with objects found on George at the crash site:  patches from his uniform, his driver’s license, a few damaged dollar bills. I sorted through these objects and felt grateful to have these last precious tokens of him. However, I noticed there was still that one thing missing that my heart yearned to have.

            I asked Bob if he had any idea where the ring might be. He looked at me with a broken heart and told me that it had most likely been in his flight suit pocket. If it was not in the envelope in front of me, then it was probably somewhere on the ground at the crash site.  I felt a wave of disappointment at the thought of never seeing the ring again. I do not know what the compulsion was to have it in my possession. I just knew I had a deep desire in my heart to see it again.

            I must have had quite a pitiful look on my face when Bob told me the ring was still missing because he started on a serious mission to recover it for me.  This incredibly thoughtful, compassionate man organized a search of the debris at the Utah Test and Training Range.  The search party consisted of airmen and civilians from Hill AFB as well as an adventurous group of individuals from the Trails West Artifact Society who used metal detectors to hunt for treasures as a hobby. They jumped at the chance to hunt for this precious treasure for the sake of a hurting widow.

            On October 17th, a good four months after the accident, these amazing volunteers searched the crash site. Considering that the area was roughly the size of eight football fields, I can imagine how intimidated they must have been. They soon discovered that they were searching for a needle in a haystack. The metal detectors were not much assistance because of all the shrapnel. It was a hunt to find metal on metal. Switching tactics, the team started a visual scan of the area. The day passed with no sign of the ring. Just after 4:00 pm the crew was going to pack up and head back to civilization. It was decided to do one last visual search. Shortly after this decision, Lt. Col. Sean Keene spotted a small round metal object in the dirt. At first he thought he was seeing a mirage because he and the rest of the volunteers wanted to find the ring so badly.  He picked it up and sure enough there was the ring. It was unscathed, the inscription still as legible as the day I put it on his finger.

“I found it!” he said.

            Some volunteers did not believe him at first, thinking he was joking. When the ring was spotted in his hand, people began to gather around him to witness this amazing miracle. God was truly with these people from the beginning to the end. Now there was only one thing left to do; give the ring to me.

            I flew into Utah for the squadron Halloween party later that month. Bob and Karen Ungerman had invited me to stay with them and I joyfully accepted. They fetched me from the airport and took me to their house to drop off my luggage. I took my bags to the guest room. On the bed was a jewelry box and note. The note, written by Bob and Karen, said how happy they were that I was in Utah and that I had been missed. Then it stated in the black jewelry box was a chain and there was something to put on the chain under the pillow.

            I started shaking as I saw a ring box under the pillow. I slowly opened the box and there was the object for which my heart had been longing. In my hand was George’s ring, in excellent condition, just like the last time I had seen it on his finger. I burst into tears and sat down on the floor. I felt overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude. Having that ring symbolized the wholeness of our marriage. It filled the gaping hole in my heart and gave me a sense of peace and closure.

            I realize later that my longing to have the ring did not come from me; it was God given. I had felt abandoned by the Lord and deeply upset that He would allow me to go through such intense agony. It would take a miracle to restore the trust I once had in Him, and a miracle is what He provided. He put a burning desire in me to have the ring and provided the most benevolent group of people I have ever known to find it. The circumstances were impossible, but God works best in the realm of the impossible. He guided a team of people to find a tiny metal ring four months after the crash in an enormous field of metal debris. And, to really show off, He preserved the ring in a perfect state while all the other metal found around it was tarnished, rusted, and malformed. If that was not a miracle, I don’t know what is. From this miraculous act of love, God expressed to me that when I was hurting, He was hurting. When I wept, He wept with me. And, when I was at my weakest, He was the one giving me strength and comfort to get through the day. I pray that the blessing of this miracle does not stop with me and that it continues to impact those who hear about it to the glory of our Precious God!