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The undoing

Last week I went on a trip with college students to the great city of Chicago as a part of my job working in college ministry.  This trip includes countless secrets I cannot disclose, but one of my favorite parts each year is spending time on Navy Pier.  Yes, it is one of the most touristy things to do in all of Chicago, but I love it.  I love the peacefulness of the open water that provides a very welcomed break from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Each year, I ride the ferris wheel, providing one of the best views of Chicago I’ve seen.  This was at least my third ride on this same ferris wheel spanning over the last five years, yet this one was quite different.  Before, I knew this ferris wheel to be a normal ferris wheel with open cars and two rows of seating facing each other.  The wheel would jolt each time it needed to stop to let someone out and it was easy to talk to people in the cars around you.

But this year was different.  To celebrate its 100 year anniversary of providing a great place to eat, play, and watch the ships on Lake Michigan go by, Navy Pier underwent revitalization.  A great focus of this revitalization was Navy Pier’s iconic ferris wheel, so much that it is now know as Navy Pier’s “Centennial Wheel”.  The Centennial Wheel is taller, faster, updated, and provides enclosed cars with air condition and eight seats inside.

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I boarded the car of the Centennial Wheel with seven friends, unaware of all of that information.  I was thankful for the air condition and break from the sun, but not until our second time around the wheel did I begin to think about how it was different.  Everything about the wheel, its location, the experience it provided, and even the time of day I was riding was so reminiscent of the times before, but it was different.  It was new and changed.

I appreciated these changes and how nice my experience was on the new and improved Centennial Wheel, but it hit me that I was experiencing the new and improved and applauding its changes, overlooking the messiness it took to get there.

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For the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel to become the Centennial Wheel, making so many changes and upgrades it merited a new name, it had to be stripped down to its barest beams.  I’m sure all who were involved in the process can attest to the great amount of work required and mess that ensued.  Demolition of such a large piece of equipment had to have been extensive and time intensive, not to mention the construction that followed.  But I didn’t see that process.  I just saw the new, shiny, beautiful, clean, air conditioned Centennial Wheel.


 

There’s been a theme in my life recently of “undoing”.  I’ve listened to Steffany Gretzinger’s album entitled “the undoing” countless times because it has been with me in my rawest and messiest of places I have had to walk into.  After facing the greatest tragedy of my life so far, I sat across from a trusted counselor who calmly whispered the scariest words to me I had ever heard, “Emily Katherine, I am inviting you to lose it.”

To lose it.

Those words, though spoken at such a low volume reverberated through my head to the point it felt like they were being shouted from one ear to the other.

And she was right.  To come to any place of healing or restoration from the hurt, grief, and confusion I was facing, it took a great deal of undoing.  A great deal of demolition to my barest beams.

It took demolishing habits of people pleasing, stripping tendencies of poor self care, allowing some of the most pivotal parts of my structure to come completely undone.

And I’ve felt completely undone for a long time.  Undone and empty.  But strangely enough, the undoing seemed to take much more work and initiative on my end than the rebuilding.

I worked hard to walk head long into the hardest and darkest places in my heart.  Goodness it hurt like hell.  And I am still on this journey.

But in the most broken places, when I felt like I was sitting in a valley of dry bones lost for any sign of life or love, Jesus met me.  He met me and held me and let me be where I was, angry, lost, bitter, confused, and empty.

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And somehow he took the empty and broken and began building.  He took the fragments I had left and began to piece me back to whole.  And not just whole, but an entirely new one.  So new and revitalized it almost feels like this change has merited taking on a new name.


This theme of undoing, though, has not solely been a theme in my own life and growth, but in the way God has called and allowed me to minister in this season.  Rather than teaching and training students, equipping them with tools and information, so often the role God has given me in students lives this year is to walk with them to the wrecking ball of their own selves.  To know the fear of turning on the machine, to be with them in the hesitation and doubt of wondering what will ensue when they truly demolish all of the control they have built up.  And to sit with them in the ruins, the questions, the hurt.

A line my counselor has often said is, “I just don’t want to rescue you from that.”  From the immense pain and hurt I was feeling.  She didn’t want to rescue me because she knew just how much I needed to face it.  To face it and feel it and hold its weight.

And as much as I hated those words in the moment, I have grown to see their value as I have sat with students who also underwent undoing.  Together, we sat in the mess they found themselves in, stripped down to their barest beams.  And at the end of themselves, they have found Jesus in their own valleys.


In my own season of darkness, I sat with a friend and mentor, truly asking what my job would be if I “couldn’t come back from this.”  This disbelief and hurt.  What would my job be if not ministry?

He shared that of all theologians he has read, the most influential ones are those that have walked through seasons of undoing.


So I enjoyed my ride on Centennial Wheel.  And I have so treasured days of feeling whole again.  But it still feels weird for me to interact with people that see and know my newly constructed self that the Lord fashioned so kindly, knowing they never saw the mess. The emptiness.  The work that it took to lose it, and the sweetness of my Father to piece me back together.

But I’ve learned to see that behind every good thing is a messy thing.  Every organized closet meant taking everything out and putting it all over the hallway floor.  Every beautiful tall building meant digging endlessly to provide a deep enough foundation.

I’ve learned every bit of creating and making, first calls for undoing.

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Review of Love Lives Here by Maria Goff

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I read Love Does a couple years ago and very quickly fell in love with Bob’s writing style.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover Maria employs the same style, sharing a story and example and tying it to a deeply profound truth that resonates deeper than you realize in the moment.

Since reading Love Does, I’ve found myself telling the stories Bob shared in lessons I teach and conversations I have.  I have already found myself doing the same with Maria’s stories and examples of Love Lives Here.

I think the best way to explain Maria’s focus of “Finding what you need in a world telling you what you want” is in a metaphor she uses.  Bob is known for bringing balloons to events all over the world.  He is a big, audacious, whimsical personality that I was shocked to find also works as an attorney.  Maria shared that whenever they go places Bob brings balloons and she brings string.  Maria does not similarly share of huge, crazy adventures.  Instead, she shares of loving her neighbors, friends, and family really well.  Maria talks about crafting a home where everyone who enters senses and feels the home and safety she has found in Christ.

“His plan from the beginning of time was that love wouldn’t be traded among the noises in our lives; it would be understood in the places of peace.  Sometimes when we’re asking Him for an answer, He sends a friend.”

Over the first few pages I found myself writing hearts all over the margins, underlining, and writing the phrase “DON’T SKIP THIS” before the foreword and introduction.

“Faith doesn’t eliminate fears in my life; it lets me know I had someone I could bring them to.”

Maria also offers great insight into walking into your own story and scars in order to truly love people well.

“What I’m learning is that the good news of our faith isn’t found in avoiding the pain, but in living through the loss, walking through the ashes, and stacking back up what we know could burn down again.”


“Preparing soil that someone can grow in is hard work, but it’s not all the work.  Preparing your own soil is where the most important tilling is done.”

As I read this book, I quickly began making a list of person after person to give this book to that I love in my life.  So if you’re reading this, go ahead and click here to purchase Love Lives Here.

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Father’s Day Stories

Father’s Day.

This day that serves to celebrate and honor the men that love and serve us so well, so faithfully without recognition.  This day that now serves as a painful reminder of missing all the sweet ways my Dad faithfully yet imperfectly served and loved me so well.

Stories.

Stories have often functioned as a healing balm for our gaping wounds over the past year as we have so missed our Dad, but so enjoy remembering how well he loved us and all that he continues to mean to us.

 Legacy.

Our family has discussed this word often.  My brother had friends and loved ones whose lives had been impacted by my Dad stand at his funeral, charging them that they were his legacy.

So here are a few stories to try to encapsulate the man we got to call Dad.  The man we celebrate today.  And the man whose legacy we are honored to bear.


M I C H A E L

One night when we were really little, Andrew and I fell asleep with our Mom for some reason.  Daddy found us there and rather than disturbing us went and slept in our bunk beds.  In the middle of the night there was a loud crash and Daddy came rushing into the room to check on everyone.  The sound came from his wooden shelves in his closet breaking, but he, still out of breath from his panic, said “I thought the boys’ bunk beds had fallen!”  “Honey, you were in the bunk beds.” My mom responded.

Emily Katherine had some stomach problems as a baby and had the hardest time sleeping.  I remember countless nights of Daddy pacing the living room walking her back and forth so patiently, whispering so softly.  There was not a light on in the room.  He just kept walking back and forth bouncing her softly.


A N D R E W

Every summer when we were young, my dad would shave our heads. We spent summers shut out of our aunt’s house and released into the woods, so the buzz cut made it easier to check us for ticks. Our ever utilitarian parents also used the summer to save money on haircuts. We would commemorate the start of each summer in the driveway, on top of a overturned five gallon bucket-made-seat where our dad would shave our heads and ring in summer with us.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I went to the Philippines to work on a farm for several months. My dad came down and moved me out of my dorm and we spent the several days getting the necessary supplies together. The night before I left, he showed me a weather report that showed my first glimpse of the triple digit heat I had signed up for. I began to grow my hair in the second semester of my freshman year, intending to use my time abroad to allow my hair to grow. My dad used the weather report as a bargaining tool and convinced me to let him shave my head. We went to the garage, flipped a bucket upside down, and removed my sought after hair. When my hair was on the floor and about my shoulders, my dad kissed the top of my head, thanked me for letting him shave my head, and told me he loved me.


 E M I L Y   K A T H E R I N E

I once was working on a music video project for school.  We were driving all over downtown filming in different spots.  We stopped in front of city hall and my car key wouldn’t come out of the ignition.  The longer I sat there trying to get it out the more my car kept overheating.  Not having the slightest understanding in the world of cars, I called my Dad crying, terrified it was going to catch on fire at any moment.  “I’ll be right here.”  He said on the other side of the phone.  In about five minutes, he pulled up next to me and walked up to the car.  I got out to let him assess the situation.  His tone with me got really gentle, but I could tell he was fighting not to laugh.  “Baby, I’m not trying to make you feel… Baby, you key won’t come out because your car is in reverse.”

When I was four years old, I was a bumble bee in my dance recital.  I was on stage at dress rehearsal dancing my heart out.  When the song ended, I stood there proudly expecting a grand applause from our teacher of how well we did.  Instead, all of the lights came on in the audience as our teachers whispered.  Mine walked right over to me with the microphone and said, “Where is her mother?!”  My mom had a work meeting that night, and I watched my Dad, still in his suit and tie from work, stand up to claim me.  They called him onto the stage to show him how a few of my velcro dots that held my tutu up were off and he listened so intently to make sure we could get it right for the recital.

 

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Making.

“You are working in our waiting
You’re sanctifying us
When beyond our understanding
You’re teaching us to trust”

“Sovereign over us”

I’ve learned I have a hard time living in the present tense.

The fact that “He is making all things new” and they aren’t already made new, while we long for them.

The journey, the slowness, the pain of being made new, when my heart is desperate for the quick, the immediate, the already accomplished.

You are working.  You are sanctifying.  You are teaching.  And I’m begging to be done.

This week, I sat under the teaching of a RUF minister who shared, “If I were the writer of the grand narrative of Scripture, I would have brought in crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification, by like Genesis 4.” Yet, He didn’t.  He took thousands of years to take us on our journey home.


I’m currently riding on what feels like an endless journey home.  Our high school students from my Church attended a camp in Colorado and we took a bus.  Our plan both in coming and going from Rome, GA to Estes Park, Colorado was to stop half way in Kansas to stay the night.  Last night though, this didn’t quite go as planned.

We were sitting at dinner in a Mexican restaurant when a terrible storm came through.  Upon, finishing eating and paying for our meals, we boarded the bus to head to our hotel for the night.  Once we reached the hotel, we discovered the entire area had no power from the storm.  In the background we heard tornado sirens.

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Sitting on the bus, it was so dark we couldn’t even see the hotel next to us.  The students were exhausted, ready to shower, and ready to use the bathroom, having boarded the bus at six that morning.

The hotel had no power so we got back on the bus to keep traveling.  Soon, we reached a gas station.  We went to the bathroom and tried to call hotels to see if we could find somewhere for our students to stay.  As there is very little between Kansas City and Kentucky, there was little to nowhere to stay.  Eventually, we decided to pull over at a gas station and continue to sleep on the bus, allowing our bus driver the required amount of time to rest before continuing to drive another full day.  We rested and continued to drive.

Around 10:30 this morning we stopped for breakfast, all of us talking about how desperately we wanted to shower, to be in our beds, to be home.  To be made new by rest, family, hospitality, and cleanliness. But as we were stopped and sharing, we were still a six hour drive from home.


Making is messy.

It means unraveling, needing, missing, losing sight, and having to remind yourself there is home and hope to come.

And I’ve taken a break from writing, a chosen fast really, because of “making” that needed to take place in my life.  Hurts, cynicism, and bitterness that needed to be walked into.  Reconciliation that needed to be sought.

And right in the middle of it, I took a night to make biscuits.

One of my favorite quotes from my Grammy is “Making biscuits is not for someone who minds getting their hands dirty.”  and goodness is that so true.  I mixed the batter with my hands, folding in the right ingredients.  I spread flour all over my counter and dumped batter into lumps.  I folded the lumps of batter in the flour until they resembled a ball and placed them on a pan to be baked.  My hands, shirt, and honestly hair were covered in flour and dough, but those biscuits were delicious.

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As I was walking through the process thinking how messy it was, I started to wonder if I was doing it right, but remembered countless times watching my Grammy or my Dad make biscuits, knowing this messiness, as wrong as it felt was right.  It was what making biscuits took.


I don’t think I take enough time to recognize the weight of what it means that Jesus took on flesh to be in the “making” with us.  That He “didn’t consider equality something to be grasped”.

This week, that same pastor shared a story of a lady who was running in the Boston Marathon when the bombing took place.  She was running and when the bombs exploded, some scrap metal flew into her legs.  She immediately fell to the ground, hysterically crying.  Many tried to console or help her but she was inconsolably in pain, crying out for help that no one around her could provide.

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A man walked up who had served in Iraq who also had wounds from scrap metal.  He walked up, showed her his side, and said something to her and her screaming quieted.

Her pain didn’t go away.  But He got it.  He knew the pain too.


I think if I were God, I would do everything in the world to keep my kids out of the “making” process.  I would just want them to be born, made totally new.  Which was His plan.  But even as we ruined it, as we thought we could figure out how to care for ourselves better than Him, He didn’t abandon us.

He entered the making.  He was brought low, felt pain, grief, hunger, betrayal, temptation, and His journey home felt never ending.  When He was in the Garden crying, “Lord, take this cup from me.”  He knew his journey home still had many trials to come.  But He was wounded in the making to be with us in it.

And as He is making, refining, sanctifying, and reminding me of my emptiness, I’m reminding myself that He is wounded too.  That as I am crying out hysterically to be done, to be out of pain, that He continues to reveal His wounds.  His wounds that bring me grace I can never deserve.  And as the journey home continues to be endless, I press on knowing that the making He is doing in “preparing a place for me” is better than I could ever ask or imagine.

 

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Hey there.  Thanks so much for reading.  My name is Emily Katherine and I’d love to get to know you.  Feel free to comment below or click the FOLLOW button to stay in touch.

Guest blog: Groundhog Day

This is my first time sharing a guest post from someone I’ve only met virtually.  My family has graciously received story after story from friends around us of their shared experience losing a parent and the grief that follows.  My brother, Michael shared with our family when Troy’s mom’s cancer continued to spread.  We prayed for her knowing the pain of losing a parent.  Troy’s mom soon lost her battle to cancer on this side of Heaven.  Michael shared when he and Troy met, they both hugged with no words, but eyes full of tears.

We would have never anticipated the stories we would hear and share this year with new friends and old.  May we slow down our own plans and priorities and attune ourselves to receive and share in life’s joys and sufferings with those who God brings in our path.  Thanks for sharing, Troy.


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(taken October 23rd 1988, on my way to boot camp)

The world somehow feels different now. Every day I wake up, there is an unexplainable emptiness –an emptiness of having lost one of the greatest gifts of life -a parent’s unconditional love.

The emptiness feels like a small child who ventures out from safety, then they return to home base for a safe reunion.  For me, home base was my parents.  As we get older, we venture further from that base.  One day, we leave for good to start college or in my case, to join the Navy.  However far away we go, that familiar comfort of home base will always be there when we return.  Even in my midlife, I have a loving family of my own away from “home”, yet I know there is a home base beyond the four walls I now call home.

I knew home and its dependability, but the security of having a home base died for me on Feb 15th at 11:05pm when my mom took her last breath.

The gravity of such a loss threw me into stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, in that order – or so I think.  8 months.  8 months since her diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. I guess the grief really began then, June 28th, 2016.

I thought at the time, of writing this piece, I was reaching acceptance.  I am only just now accepting the diagnosis. This could not possibly happen to my mother and definitely not the end result.  It still seems so unimaginable.

The very week of Christmas we learned that chemotherapy was having no affect on the tumor.  In fact, the tumor had grown and spread to other organs.  The doctor recommended that my mom surround herself with loved ones and enjoy each day until the end.  She still seemed so full of life.  It just couldn’t be real.

Each week she became weaker and weaker.  Each passing minute, a hopeless step closer to the inevitable.

In the last 3 weeks of her life, I woke up everyday to confront and face the reality again and again. It felt like the movie Groundhog Day.  Each day, I began the process of grief again.  Every morning, it felt new and still so unbelievable again.  By the end of the day, there was peace.  And then just like clock work, I would wake up and feel the same sadness I had the morning before.

On the day she died, I have never felt more relieved.  Then, the relief was replaced with gravity.  Gravity of my “home base” being lost forever.  Again.  Every morning new and empty.  Of course, my geographical “home” will always be in the same place, but my safety of my mother’s unconditional love will be missed forever.

Today is March 3, 2017 – a whole 2 weeks and 1.5 days since my mother passed away and every morning it is new.  New and empty, the pain repeating itself and then the peace, followed by another painful morning.

I miss you, Mommy.

-Troy Willis

When you don’t want to open your Bible

This was a message I got to share to the students in the WinShape College Program at Berry College in Rome, GA where I am on college ministry staff.  Our focus this year has been on “A Word Centered Life”.  Here is my story on struggling to have one for the past year.

Books quoted: ESV BibleWhen I don’t desire GodHaving a Mary heart in a Martha worldShe Reads Truth: Open your Bible, and Love Does.

Guest blog: Summer to Winter

My guest blogger today is my very own big brother.

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Michael is 6 years older than me and over 6 feet tall.  He has always been the big and strong brother, but in the past year has been brave in whole new ways.  I remember the very first night we were in the hospital together.  Michael and I got locked out getting something from the car and had to take a long way around to get back to the small room our family would be sleeping in that night.  Michael told me he was feeling the pressure to be the strong one, to be less emotional and more fearless, despite the fact that he was just as scared as the rest of us.  I was so proud of his openness and have only been overwhelmingly proud since of the courage he has taken to be angry, hurt, broken, and lost, because that’s the road grief walks you down.  Michael got all of the creative genes in our family as you’ll see in his writing style.

Thankful for you.


“Learning to weep, learning to vigil, learning to wait for the dawn. Perhaps this is what it means to be human.” – Henri J. M. Nouwen

This summer – I was reeling from the loss of my father, but found myself having to still do my job. I had flown to California for our largest annual event and had been assigned to filming and conducting some really personal interviews.

In this process, and between interviews, I overheard a conversation begin with a gentleman I did not know, about how his mom had just been diagnosed with cancer. So early in the process that they had no action plan yet, no treatment arranged. Just the sudden weight of it.

By the time we actually introduced ourselves to each other, it was a hug and not a handshake. And we were both in tears.

He and I have kept in touch, often, since that day in the summer. Me to check on his mom and his family, and he to check on mine.

Thursday night, I found out his mom passed away.

I wept for a woman I had never met.

I wept for my friend and his family.

I walked to dinner with my head swirling, unable to be a part of the conversations around me.

And when I made it back to my bed I turned out the lights and typed this note on my phone.

How do you offer “hope” when you can be so certain it cannot yet be felt?

Perhaps “hope” in these moments, is that you don’t hurt alone.

And that maybe, hurting is such a deep part of being human.

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Weep. Mourn. Wail.
Freely. Openly.
Let no man question you for this.
Let no man doubt your marrow.
There is so much strength – in coming undone.
I was told grief is love’s receipt.
And I let it wash over me. Still do.
Wave after wave.
Left rooms to weep in solitude.
Restaurants. Bathrooms. Hallways. Pulled over and bottomed out. Head on my steering wheel. 
Stood sobbing in the shower. 
Still do.
The friends that know that broken, will stand tall when you cannot. 
Texts. Calls. Dinner. Silent moments sitting. Pain filling their eyes. 
An overflow of their own.
These moments are pure. 
Be carried and baptized in their wholeness.
And throw your rocks at the moon. 
Every question and hurt and pain and doubt and fear hurled into the night sky. 
Full force. 
Core to extremity. 
Unleash. 
Til you collapse exhausted on a tear dotted pillow.
And wake up only to find the first fleeting moments of the day, where you actually have to remind yourself how much you have lost. 
And how much you hurt. 
And you sink back into your mattress…
To weep. Mourn. Wail. Freely. Openly.

-Michael James Dalton