Loaves in the Land of Surreal

We’d crossed the state line just half an hour earlier when the faint brushstroke of it caught my eye in the blushing Texan sunset…

The reality of returning to Texas had suddenly shown up. I was back—not returning the way I’d come before and for a much longer stretch this time—but I was here once again. Back in that state I’d never had an inkling of desire to visit for the second time in less than two months. Four weeks ago, I’d made a decision that propelled me into a lightning-fast series of actions: move to Texas—which meant resigning from my job, getting rid of 95% of my stuff, shoving most of my remaining belongings in a tiny storage unit, saying a lot of goodbyes, and setting out on an epic cross-country road trip with my mom and sister.

…As we moved ever-closer to my new landing spot on the other side of Dallas, I saw it. Peeking from behind the clouds, backlit by the setting sun was a barely-there rainbow.

A promise.

A reminder.

A gift.

~*~

You know those steps you sometimes take that propel you forward a bit faster than you would’ve liked, but couldn’t stop once you were in motion? None of the metaphors I’ve come up with thus far really do justice to this feeling. For example, I’ve thought of images that range from the stumbling steps of walking off a moving sidewalk too fast and almost running yourself over with your baggage (hello, ATL airport–not that I would know, personally, of course) to jumping out of a plane and forgetting you even have a parachute. Nothing suffices to describe all the feelings.

I’m a words girl. If you’re reading this, you clearly already know that. The written word is my preferred method of processing; I live and breathe by the written word. (Thoreau didn’t coin the “choicest of relics” phrase without cause, people.) Most of the time, putting my thoughts and feelings into words comes fairly easy. Not so much this week. For starters, it’s been such an incredibly weird week that I’ve been unable to articulate exactly what I’ve felt. When a blog post starts percolating in my brain, it usually stems from a single word or phrase. Since I arrived in Texas Saturday evening, I’ve been asked several times, “How are you? How are you feeling?” And I haven’t had any words other than “weird” and “floundering” to answer those questions. Until this morning, when Anna and I had chat about this crazy-good thing I’ve done. And suddenly I had my word: surreal.

“What you are doing is surreal. Look it up—what’s the definition of surreal?” she asked.

“’ Marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,’” I replied, after a quick Google search.

Fine. Point taken.

~*~

This thing that I’ve done in the last month—returning from a weekend retreat and moving halfway across the freaking country? It sounds crazy, looks crazy, and could very well be crazy. I know. Believe me—I KNOW. But if I look back over the last few years—and the last year in particular, I cannot help but see a trail of markers—breadcrumbs, if you will—that have lead me here.

Last summer life was much the same as it had been for the last three—I was surviving, going through the motions of everyday life, pretending I was as happy as I might have seemed. Don’t get me wrong—there were plenty of good things and people in my life, but I was not living life to the fullest. The Gallaudet incident sucked far more out of me than it should have, perhaps, but it left me broken, empty, and trapped in fear, anxiety, and depression.

And although I had stumbled into #the4500 Facebook group earlier in the year, I was not very engaged there…yet. Only one of them was my actual Facebook friend—and that was Anna, who had sent a request in April. In July, I commented on a post where folks were posting screenshots of Jen Hatmaker’s interactions with us on Twitter, leading Anna to find me on Twitter and follow me. That was, for the most part, the extent of my interaction with the group.

And then September came, and I was reading Daring Greatly, and next thing I knew Anna and I were talking on the phone for the first time…and here I am, barely nine months later, typing this blog post in her house.

If that isn’t surreal, I don’t want to know what is.

Since that first phone call in September, way too many “little” things have happened for me to ignore their significance–one of which Anna reminded me of this morning: “The ENTIRE East Coast shut down in January…for YOU…so I could meet not only you, but your mom and Jess, too…” Yes, I suppose you could look at it like that. Thank you, Snowpacalypse 2016.

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Sometimes the breadcrumbs along the trail turn out to be more the size of loaves–it all depends on your perspective. All those “coincidental” events might’ve looked like breadcrumbs a few months ago, but from where I sit today, they look a bit more like loaves I was handed to feast upon. 

~*~

 

 

A week ago today, I loaded a few boxes and bags into trunk of my mom’s car and embarked on a two-day, one-thousand mile road trip with the two most important women in my life. I’d originally intended to fly to Texas, but I’m incredibly grateful that Mom and Jess decided to drive me out. We had a blast as we crossed five state lines and made some fun stops along the way. But perhaps the greatest reward of the journey was their meeting and spending time with a few of the women who have impacted me the most in #the4500—Anna, Rachel, and Julie. It’s really difficult to explain the culture of #the4500 to those who aren’t a part of it; it was hard for me to understand it until I arrived at Splendid. But because they got to experience it firsthand, I believe it was easier for all of us to part ways on Monday afternoon. When Mom turned to me just before she and Jess departed and said, “You’ve got good family here,” I knew she understood—maybe not fully, but enough to know I was not going to be left to flounder my way through this transition.

Leaving SC wasn’t easy. Some of my very dear friendships have had to shift in order to survive the transition. That breaks my heart, but I know it is necessary and I’m willing to make space for those friendships to find a new rhythm. I’m so thankful for all the people who have cheered me on. In the two weeks leading up to my departure, I had so many wonderful conversations with friends who wanted to know all about how God has worked to orchestrate this venture—Christine, Cathy, Julia, Becky, Angi, Camille, Kayla, Olgui, Susan & Mary Carol, Jenna & Melissa, Susan & Lisa, Brent & Shannon…I’m sure I’m leaving people out.  I wish I had all of those conversations in written form to reflect on. What I do have is the knowledge that you are my tribe. You are praying and cheering from the stands of the arena. For that, I am so thankful.

I won’t lie and say this week has been easy. It hasn’t. For several hours Monday afternoon and evening all I could do was lie on the couch and breathe. My heart was racing and I almost felt trapped. I didn’t say a word for 24 hours. In the days following, I’ve been in a mostly calm state of mind, but there have definitely been moments when I’ve let myself question everything about this move. For those of you have texted to check in—Kelli, Christine, Taylor, Julie—thank you for caring for my heart. And Anna, of course, gets a heap of thanks and admiration from the depths of my heart for welcoming me into her home.

While I know I’m here for a reason, I’m not entirely sure what that reason is yet. What I do know I have here is a tribe and community ready to receive me. I don’t have a polished plan. I don’t have a safety net. Yet, the words I hear from the Holy Spirit every time I pray about this transition is “be still…wait…I have a plan…”

So, for now, my plan is to just do the next right thing and let Him handle the rest. He’s already got the loaves waiting along the path ahead.

 

Splendid & Lovely: Splendid Sunday

…Early Sunday morning, as I awoke from a short, but peaceful sleep, my thoughts immediately rested on the fact that it was the last day of Splendid. In a few short hours, we would say goodbye to one another and head back to our respective states and time zones. We would return to our virtual community, albeit with a few more real-life connections; the morning would be bittersweet.

 

This is the end of a chapter… I thought to myself.

“No, this is the very beginning of a chapter,” that still, small voice responded.

Oh.

Then… “You signed three times this weekend—a symbol of restoration for three lost years.”

 

In Anna’s workshop the day before, she had talked about the parable of the good soil and used a particular gardening technique (Back to Eden gardening) as an illustration. With this technique, dead/composted materials (wood chips, grass clippings, newspaper, etc) is used to cover the garden in preparation for planting. As she explained the process, she said, “Nothing is wasted.” All the “dead” materials are used for a purpose in preparing the soil.

As the Holy Spirit dropped this revelation that the three times I’d signed were directly related to the three years that had passed since I’d buried the dream I perceived as dead, I was astounded. And completely satisfied that the weekend was closing as it was. Again, I was content with the way God had moved; I could go home at peace with this outcome. I didn’t feel like I required anything more; I had a resolution to the question of whether the passion He’d placed in me was a figment of my imagination or if He really meant to plant it in my heart. It was more than enough. I held all of this close and didn’t even speak it to Anna and Kelli.

 

But He wasn’t finished.

 

Before we left for the restaurant, I texted Kelli to see where she was. She and a few others were leaving early to catch flights home. I dreaded telling her goodbye, but knew I couldn’t let her leave without doing so. She also needed to sing to me for Xamayta, who was unable to be at Splendid. When I found her she said matter-of-factly, “We’re not saying good-bye. We’re just not. We’re saying ‘soon.’” I told her we needed to make a video for Xamayta, so she pulled April M. into our huddle and handed Megan C. her phone. They put their arms around me and began to sing…”Jesus Loves Me.”

Those few moments broke all kinds of junk off me. It was one of the sweetest moments of the weekend, and I’ll treasure it in my heart forever. I hugged Kelli, said “Soon,” and hopped in the car with Rachel and Anna to drive down to the restaurant.

All weekend, I’d felt impressed to sit down with Tracy for an eyeball-to-eyeball chat. On Friday night, I’d grabbed her and told her I wanted to talk at some point during the weekend; she said okay and told me to find her sometime Saturday. Then Saturday came and I was a hot mess who didn’t want to talk to anyone. At breakfast Sunday morning, Tracy walked by and asked when I wanted to talk. I knew she was busy preparing for our last session, and I didn’t want to intrude on her time, so I kind of shrugged it off, and said, “Just at some point before we leave, whenever you have a minute.”

When we gathered for the last session, Taylor and I found seats together. I turned my phone’s voice memo recorder on—something I wish I’d thought to do earlier in the weekend—and settled in to listen as Jana began to speak.

She began by reading Philippians 4. When she got to verse 13, she read it, and then looked around the room: “…that’s easy to say—don’t you think? I mean, where’s Ticcoa? Just getting here…right? Look how much better it was?”

Yes.

After reading the scripture she gave us three questions to reflect on as we left our time together and return to our respective homes.

 

What is God asking you to do?

“What is God asking you to do? Because He’s told you—this weekend—that you have something to do. And you may not have a position in a church, but you have a place, and it may not be paid and it may not be on a platform, on a pedestal—but you have a place. He puts you where He needs you to be…some of us are like, ‘I can’t do this…’ or ‘I can’t do that…’”

 

Well, that was a no-brainer. He was asking me to pick up the dream I’d laid down.

 

Where is God asking you to go?

“Some of you are called to a mission field—and I don’t know where—or why—or when, but somebody—no a couple—you know you are and you’re like ‘ummm, I don’t wanna go.’”

This one was a little more abstract. It wasn’t until I had been home from Splendid for a week that I knew the answer to this one.

What is God asking you to be?

“…you have a place…we need to bring our very best, we need to bring whatever God told [us] this weekend, because we made space for it, we made time for it…”

Again, I didn’t yet have specifics in mind, but I knew I’d heard Him clearly say that it was time to reconsider pursuing employment and/or graduate school in an ASL related field.

Then Jana began to pray, and that’s when it all started to get real.

“…I ask for those of us who have a thought: ‘I could teach something…I could teach something next time…’ and we look at ourselves and go, ‘What? That just came out of my mouth?!’—that Lord, You give us the strength….”

As soon as the words “…I could teach something next time…” were out of her mouth, a clear picture popped into my mind: I was standing in a circle of women, teaching them how to engage in worship through sign language.

What?

There was that still, quiet voice again: That’s why you need to talk to Tracy

OH.

Okay.

I may have laughed under my breath, or gasped quietly. I don’t remember.

As we were all mingling, saying lingering good-byes, Tracy walked up to me and said, “Let’s trade numbers—and talk on the phone soon.”

Not wanting to press for a conversation then and there, I agreed, we took a picture and hugged. She walked away and immediately I was arguing with myself.

You need to talk to her. Now.

She’s busy—everyone wants to talk to her before she leaves.

You cannot sit on this. You need to talk to her now.

Fine.

Tracy walked by me a few minutes later and I grabbed her hand.

“I just need a minute—I need you eyeball-to-eyeball.”

“Okay,” she replied.

I led her to a quiet spot in the back of the restaurant and told her what had happened during Jana’s prayer, how the picture had popped into my mind, and how I’d known then why I needed to talk to her.

“I’m not asking you to do anything with this information, necessarily; I just needed you to know,” I explained. She told me that she would think and pray about it, and that we would talk soon. By acting on the clear instruction to talk to her, a door of potential opportunity was opened.

Again, I was totally content with how the weekend had gone—overjoyed, actually. I had gotten here, God had answered some questions I’d been holding close at heart, I’d met some of the heart-sisters I’d gotten to know online over the last year, I’d conquered some major fears and anxieties, and I was thrilled.

Splendid had, indeed, been splendid and lovely.

 

(If you’ve made it through the entire seven-part series, bless you. Thank you for joining me on the journey.)

 

“Just breathe”: Splendid Friday

On Friday morning, shortly after I awoke, I was scrolling through my various social media apps. In my Timehop app, I came across a post that struck me as a little ironic, so I reposted it to Facebook:

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A little later, as Anna, Taylor, Kristen (one of my and Anna’s roommates), and I were driving to the restaurant for breakfast, Anna told us about another retreat she had been on. Part of that retreat‘s schedule included a day where the participants were sent out on the ranch to spend a day in solitude from sunrise to dusk. Taylor was driving, I was in the front seat, and Anna and Kristen were in the backseat. Anna talked about how she began to get anxious about finding her way back to the main buildings on the ranch once the sun started to set. She wondered if the path would look the same on the way back as it had on the way in. Then the Holy Spirit whispered to her, “You don’t have to go back that way. You don’t have to go back the way you came.”

As she spoke, I had been turned around in my seat so I could see her. When she said those words, it was like a rock dropped into my stomach—the weight of them heavy with significance. I glanced at Taylor and could tell she felt the same way. Anna kept talking, but I have no idea what she said after those words left her mouth.

See, the day before I left for Texas, when I was saying goodbye to my co-teacher Christine (who also happens to be my best friend—seriously—who gets to work with their BFF every day?), she said to me, “I could never do what you’re doing [going to spend the weekend with people you only know online]…you aren’t going to come back the same person that you are now.” So when Anna said almost those exact words in the car Friday morning, it was like God was making it very clear that He had a plan for the weekend; it seemed as though He was saying, “Hello—I see you.”

On the way back to the resort after breakfast, Anna encouraged me to tell Taylor and Kristen the story. So I did. (This would make the sixth time I’d spoken it.)

The retreat didn’t officially start until mid-afternoon on Friday. I spent most of the afternoon with Kelli before we headed to registration. The opening session was short, followed by an icebreaker activity where we were paired up with another woman and played the “two truths and one lie” game. (Kill me. I hate these things. Introvert, remember?) I was handed a card with the worship leader’s name on it. Amanda and I had just had a conversation a few minutes earlier, so I was struggling to come up with facts that she didn’t already know about me. We completed the activity and the session continued with everyone splitting into their family time small groups. Taylor and I were in the same group, along with Megan, and Anna was our leader. Melissa was also part of our group, but she wouldn’t be arriving until later. We gathered in a little circle in the corner of the room and Anna gave me the “look.”  “I should probably just tell her, shouldn’t I?” I asked, referring to Megan. If we were going to be family, we needed to catch her up.

So I told the story again. For the seventh time in 48 hours. I don’t remember Megan’s exact reaction, but it was similar to everyone else’s in that she felt like God was calling me back to this dream. I wasn’t entirely convinced. Yet.

After Family Time, we headed to dinner. Megan, Taylor, Anna and I sat together and chatted while we ate. As we were finishing, Amanda, the worship leader walked up to me.

The words that came out of her mouth were the ones that God used to smack me upside the head and say, “Do you believe me now? Do you believe that this is what you’re supposed to do now?”

“Tracy told me to ask you if you’d be willing to sign during worship this weekend?”

Excuse me? I did not come here this weekend to sign during worship. No intentions of this at all.

I’m sure my mouth dropped open. I know I stumbled over my words as I told her I’d have to think about it. (The first worship session was happening in 30 minutes.) She immediately assured me that I was under no pressure (maybe not from you, sister, but God? Yeah, He’s turning up the heat.) She said she’d send me her playlist so I could look it over, then went back to her table.  I could feel the heat rising in my face, my heart was pounding, my head was throbbing, my eyes were wide.

Anna was sitting across the table, beaming. “Breathe,” she instructed, “Just breathe

I started telling the three of them all the reasons why I couldn’t, why shouldn’t do this.

It’s been three years since I signed in front of people.

I’m too rusty.

Who am I to join in leading worship?

They shot down every single one of my excuses.

Anna finally looked at me and asked, “So is this a ‘hell yes’?”

No,” I replied. “No, it is not, yet. I need to know what songs she’s planning to use tonight.”

I walked over to Amanda’s table, crouched beside her chair and asked her what songs she was doing that night.

The first four she read off were the ones I knew the best on her playlist. Then she said, “And there’s one that’s not on the list that I’m planning to do at the end of the session—‘Good, Good Father.’”

OKAY, God—I hear you.

“Good, Good Father” has been my anthem since I heard it for the first time in January. I’d gone to an open mic night with a friend and heard it there. Then, later that night, Anna and I had talked on the phone and she had said those words to me—“he’s a good Father”—and I had just burst out laughing at the timing of them. A month later, I read Julie’s book, Stones of Remembrance—and read those words over and over and over throughout her story.

At that point, I knew what I was being asked to do, but I still wasn’t ready to say “yes.” I left Amanda’s table, made a beeline for Kelli’s and asked her to pray. Then I headed back to my table and told Taylor, Anna, and Megan that I was going to change clothes. Megan made a comment about my t-shirt, referencing the “Be the Light” quote that was scrawled across it—“see you’re supposed to be the light—your shirt says so!” There’s a story there too, but let’s just say that it was yet another slap in the face that said, “Hello—I’m talking to you!”

I got up from the table and headed for the door to go change clothes. And my family group got up too and followed me out the door. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, knowing they were with me.  As we walked back to the cabin, my mind was spinning. I did not want to do this thing, but I knew I was supposed to. I was still thinking I could get out of it some way. Ha. The other three were talking, but I didn’t hear them—until I heard Anna say. “You’re glowing! Your smile is from ear to ear! I love this!”Honestly, I didn’t even know I was smiling. I was wrapped up in my thoughts; I thought my face was a display of the fear, insecurity, and struggle that was happening internally. Apparently not.

We got to the cabin and I changed clothes. By this time, we had about 20 minutes before the session started. I told the girls if I did anything, it would be “Good, Good Father” at the end of the session. As I stood looking at myself in the mirror, silently reminding myself to breathe, Anna walked up behind me and asked if I wanted her to massage my shoulders. I said yes and sat on the bed. Megan and Taylor had flopped down on the other bed. As I pulled “Good, Good Father” up on my phone, Anna started rubbing my shoulders. I closed my eyes and listened to the song, focusing on breathing. About halfway through the song, Anna stopped massaging my shoulders and placed one hand on top of my head. With her other hand, she started playing with my hair. I can’t describe those moments as anything other than holy. My spirit calmed and peace washed over me. I finally knew I was going to do this thing that I still didn’t want to do.

Our roommate Carolyn came in then and it was time to head to the conference room for the session. As we walked, Taylor and me ahead of Carolyn, Anna, and Megan, I could hear Anna telling Carolyn a little about what was happening. She shared with Carolyn about my word for 2016 being “unbound” and Carolyn said she would pray. Taylor put her arm around me as we approached the building and said, “This is a safe place. This is the place where you can do this.” I walked in, found Amanda and told her I was planning to join her at the end. She said she wouldn’t call me up, but told me to just come up.

Throughout that session, I sat on the floor in the back corner of the room, writing all the things that were pouring into my mind—things the Holy Spirit had spoken to me over the past few months, the reasons why I should and should not be doing this, just all the words. Tracy walked by me at one point and asked, “The floor? Are you comfy?” Yeah, I am—and I would probably fall out of a chair if I tried to sit in one right now, I thought. One thing I’ve learned about myself recently is that when my heart, mind, and spirit are swirling, I need to be sitting somewhere concrete and steady—like on the floor with a wall to support me.

The session began to close, and I quietly made my way to the front row. My heart was pounding. Amanda went to the keyboard and I stood up, turning to face the crowd. She started playing and singing; I closed my eyes and started signing.

And it was so hard. I kept fumbling (though no one probably noticed), and my hands felt awkward and uncooperative. But I did it. I had done what I had been asked to do…

The Darkened Arena: The Burial of a Dream

(continued from “I Could Do That”: The Beginning of A Dream)

During the three-and-a-half years after the ASL program began at NGU, I audited ASL 1, 2, and 3 at my alma mater, building my vocabulary and becoming more comfortable with facial grammar and the structural components of ASL. Through countless conversations with the instructors, I eventually concluded that I wanted to get serious about pursuing a graduate degree in teaching ASL. As you might imagine, that’s not an easy degree to come by. Acceptance of ASL as a valid, stand-alone language is still not widespread. (Don’t even get me started on that soapbox.) There are a handful of related programs across the country, but the ultimate one is Gallaudet University’s M.A.T. in Sign Language.

Gallaudet University (Gally, as it is affectionately known), located in Washington, D.C., is “the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard-of-hearing students”—thereby making it a truly immersive environment for Deaf culture. It is the Mecca of education in the DEAF-World. And it became my goal to study there.

But I was so scared to act on that goal. Entering into any new culture, learning any new, non-native language is uncomfortable; for my sheltered, introverted heart, it was terrifying. Many conversations with my mentors and former professors took place before I was remotely ready to move forward.

11109_651171316406_1886242799_nFinally, in the spring of 2013, I felt that it was time. I poured over the Gally U graduate school website, requested application materials, and decided to visit the program over the summer. I also enrolled in a 2-week ASL immersion course in order to gauge the pace and atmosphere of classes at Gally, which was to take place in July. I arranged to stay with a family friend in Annapolis and commute into D.C. for classes each day.

In April 2013, as I prepared to begin this journey, I approached my pastor for prayer regarding wisdom, provision, and direction at the end of a church service. He prayed for those things; then when the service ended, he had a brief conversation with me. I was poised to follow what I understood as God’s calling to immersion learning and graduate school at Gallaudet. I was ready, I was willing, I was determined. I had prayed about it, I had researched it, I had applied for it, I had interviewed for it, and I had enrolled.  I was excited about it.

And then one conversation in a seemingly safe place brought it all crashing down. The words came like knives:  “This is not what you’re supposed to do. If you go down this path, you will be hurt. ” My heart was crushed. Shattered. Grieving. I don’t think I even responded to him—if I did, I don’t remember. For hours that afternoon, I drove aimlessly, numb and aching. I finally went home that evening and cried my eyes out—deep, gut-wrenching sobs that made my muscles hurt.  

For a few weeks, I struggled with knowing whether these words were true. Had I heard the Holy Spirit wrong? Were all the events of the last few years a tease? Did I really hold this passion for ASL and the Deaf community for nothing? Those closest to me, the people who had been alongside me as I explored this passion all counseled me that I was supposed to pursue this path. I prayed, and prayed and prayed. But my confidence in my ability to hear what God was speaking to me had been skewed.

Ultimately, I decided that I would follow through with my plans to visit Gallaudet and take the immersion class in July. Two weeks before the trip, I completed a video interview and assessment with the ASL department chair to make sure my skill level was appropriate for the course I’d chosen. (It was.) On the night before I was scheduled to leave for Annapolis, I picked up my rental car.

And I had a panic attack on the way home, though I didn’t have a name for it then. Every possible fear and anxious thought flooded my mind. What if my pastor was right? What if this was the worst decision I would ever make? What if something unimaginable happened to me?

Within two hours of picking up the rental car, I decided I was not going.

The next morning, I returned my rental car. I emailed the friend I was supposed to stay with and said, “I’m not coming.”

And I did not go.

~*~

The arena is darkened, devoid of light. The spectators have left; the show is over for them. In the middle of the arena floor, crumpled into a bruised and broken heap, lays the contender. For her, the battle has only just begun. The opponents were brutal—Fear, Anxiety, Depression, Lies, Regret, Numbness—they have all done their part in taking her down. Now, they’ve retreated to the edges of the arena, lurking in the shadows, taunting their victim with whispers.

“You’ve made a huge mistake.”

“You have nothing to offer.”

“Too many bad things would have happened to you.”

“You’re invisible; no one sees you.”

“No one values your passion.”

“Wasted—that’s all that opportunity was.”

“Your dreams are worthless.”

“You missed your chance. You blew it.”

“I’m done with you.”

Whimpering silently, the contender closes her eyes, desperately trying to keep the voices out of her head. But they are unwavering, always there. The ache in the pit of her stomach burns, threatening to tear her in half. As the pain grows, spreading through her limbs, from fingertips to toenails, she loses consciousness and slips into the darkness.

~*~

The decision not to go to Gallaudet that summer because I chose to hear the lies over the truth damaged my heart and mind in ways I never imagined it would. I shut down; I became a shell of myself. I lost my joy, my motivation, my belief that Jesus could speak to me. I shut my mentor-friends out because I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing them. I put the mask of “everything’s okay” on every day and went through the motions of my life, but those closest to me—particularly my mom, my sister, and my best friend and co-teacher, Christine— knew I was struggling. Struggling to stay afloat; struggling to care; struggling to believe in God’s goodness; struggling to believe I was enough in every area—as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher, etc. My self-worth plummeted. I stopped signing except to teach my students a few signs here and there. I laid my dream down and buried it under the premise that it was never supposed to be mine to begin with. If I could have stayed in bed twenty-four hours of every day for the remainder of 2013 and all of 2014, I would have. I was depressed, ashamed, and broken. It was the darkest season I have ever known—and hope to never know again.

In October of 2014, I remember going to bed one night, whispering, “If this is all You’ve got for me, I don’t want to wake up.”  1460279_693242101216_124019780_n

Guess what?

He wasn’t done with me.

In March of 2015, I was rejected from Jen Hatmaker’s launch team and stumbled into a Facebook group of women that was taking it upon themselves to “go rogue” and launch her book anyway…which eventually landed me at The Splendid Retreat in Texas last week…

 

“I Could Do That”: The Beginning of A Dream

I’ve been enamored with ASL since I was 8 years old. I remember seeing a Deaf couple signing to one another in a grocery store checkout line and being fascinated by the fluid movements of their hands and the animated expressions on their faces. I was drawn to it; it struck something deep inside me…a feeling I couldn’t articulate or understand then.

That same year, my grandfather took an assistant pastor position at a large church in a nearby city, leaving the small community church I’d grown up in with him as my pastor since I was born. On one of the first occasions my family visited my grandparents’ new church, my eyes lighted on the ASL interpreter positioned at the base of the platform, hands flying through the air. Again, I was transfixed. (Even to this day—more than two decades later, my attention is focused on the interpreter when I visit my grandparents’ church.)

This fascination flitted in and out of my sight line throughout my adolescence. In high school, my family began attending a new church where I joined an interpretive movement/mime/drama team. Here, I found an outlet for my desire to sign. My passion for sign language grew as I traveled to several national and regional drama conferences with the team. At these conferences, I met a woman, Tyra Lokey, who was a worship leader/dance instructor who incorporated ASL into her routines. My best friends and I became her groupies at these conferences. We chose her breakout sessions exclusively, chatted with her between sessions, and ran errands for her—she actually started calling us her groupies and would call us out when we entered one of her classes.

There was a joyous, fiery passion for sharing her love of God through sign language and music—it radiated from every part of her. One night at the national conference, as I sat in the group worship, I watched Tyra pour herself into worshipping through sign language. As I sat in the balcony, I heard the Holy Spirit speak to my spirit, “You could do that.” As this notion soaked into my heart, I responded silently, yet firmly: “I could do that.” Again, I felt that soul-deep stirring in my heart as I prayed, “Is that what I’m supposed to do?”—“that” being ASL in some form and fashion.

I never really intended to go to college. When I was in high school, people would ask me about my plans for higher education and I just shrugged them off. Post secondary schooling didn’t seem to be within my reach. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life—I was interested in teaching, but far too timid for that profession. Toward the end of high school, I began to think about ASL interpreting as an option, but I didn’t know ASL outside the few dozen signs I knew from the drama team—or anyone who was Deaf, for that matter. All these possibilities seemed too far out of reach. I was too shy, too quiet, and too afraid to pursue any of them.

Finally, in 2005, at the age of 21, I enrolled at North Greenville University–a small, local Christian college. I began as an Early Childhood Education major, but switched to the English program during my sophomore year. I continued to be drawn to the field of ASL and Deaf culture, but my university offered no classes related to either. In the spring semester of my sophomore year, I explored an option to transfer to another college to pursue a degree in Deaf Education, but ultimately felt that I was to stay where I was.

Later that semester, it became clearer that the Lord had a purpose for me in staying at NGU. I awoke at 4:00 one April morning with an outline for an ASL course proposal on my mind. I had no idea what to do with that information, so I went to my advisor and discussed it with her.  She, along with several other professors in the English department, encouraged me to pursue this crazy idea of undertaking a huge project that would eventually include writing a research thesis on 1.) why NGU needed an ASL program, 2.) the availability of/ need for ASL programs within a five-state radius, and 3.) the validity of ASL as a language, as well as a survey of both the student body and faculty of NGU to assess the interest-level in ASL classes.An independent study was created by Dr. Catherine Sepko, Dean of Humanities; Dr, Cheryl Collier, English Department Chair; and my advisor, Dr. Julia Drummond to give me the parameters to conduct my research in the fall of my junior year. Their support, along with many other faculty members was invaluable throughout the process. They warned me of the opposition I would face, supported me in every aspect of my research and writing, and believed that I could do what I thought was impossible.


On January 23, 2007 I presented an overview of Deaf culture and the history of ASL, a summary of my thesis, and a proposal for the addition of an ASL course at NGU to a faculty panel. At that point, I handed over the proposal to Dr. Sepko, Dr. Walter Johnson (the Curriculum Committee chair at the time), and Dr. Bill Stuermann (the head of the Foreign Language department). I had done what God had asked me to do when I woke up with the proposal outline on my mind the previous spring.

And then I waited. And waited. And waited.
And then I graduated.

I graduated in December 2009 without seeing my dream of ASL classes at NGU come to fruition. The proposal was still being pushed in committee meetings, but it was in a holding pattern. Obstacle after obstacle appeared.

But God.

In the Spring of 2011, a qualified instructor had been hired and the first ASL class began at NGU. I was in the front row, completely in awe that I was watching the vision God had placed in my heart unfolding before my eyes. 

After the first class ended, I approached the instructor, Shannon Fike, extended my hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Ticcoa. I’ve been praying for you for years. I’m so glad you’re finally here.”

Today, 5 years after ASL was introduced on campus, NGU offers five levels of ASL classes, a Deaf Culture class, and an ASL linguistics class—taught by four faculty members. This semester, an ASL component was added to the Interdisciplinary Studies degree. It took me a long time to own my role in the process of bringing ASL to NGU. In fact, until a conversation I had with counselor Bob Hamp and my friend Anna, I believed that “anybody could’ve done this.” But God hadn’t asked just anybody to do this crazy thing—it was me, and He equipped me to do exactly what He called me to do. He planted the seed of a burning passion for ASL and the Deaf community in my heart and coaxed it to life.

This process and experience fanned the flame of my passion for ASL and the Deaf community even more, motivating me to begin exploring options for a master’s degree in teaching ASL…

…until I hit a proverbial wall and buried that dream…

Stones Of Remembrance: A Book Review

Books and words have always been an integral part of my life. They are my second skin, my place of solace, my preferred activity. Lately, new forms of this passion have taken over—launch teams and eBooks—both of which were foreign to me a year ago. Really, if you don’t count #the4500’s rogue involvement in unofficially launching Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love, I wasn’t even part of an official launch team until last November. And until now, I’ve just flat-out refused to read eBooks, because I’m stubborn and they are against my literary religion. Now? I’m on my fourth launch team in four months, and (gasp) just finished reading my second eBook of the year—Stones of Remembrance by Julie Presley.

I’ve had Stones of Remembrance on my to-read list for months—since I found out that Julie (who is a friend from #the4500) was an author, but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet. A few weeks ago, an email from Julie landed in my inbox—and in it was an eBook version of Stones of Remembrance. I started reading it that night. I don’t know what I expected from Stones of Remembrance, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be as powerfully relatable as it was.

(FYI—any new subscribers to her email list get a copy of the Stones eBook. Go to her website, juliepresley.com, and give the woman your email address, people. She’s not spammy or annoying. Promise. You won’t regret it.)

Here’s the thing: I grew up on a heavy literary diet of Christian fiction. If it could be found on the inspirational or Christian fiction shelf of the library in the mid 90’s-2005, I’ve probably read it. As an English major in college, I dove into more classic literary works and found them so much more “meaty”—they made me think critically and view the world through different lenses. They became far more inviting than the glossy, easily-resolved Christian fiction I’d been accustomed to reading.

For me, the problem with typical Christian fiction is that it really doesn’t give room for characters to struggle with their faith. There might be an internal conflict or two, but it’s usually very brief and resolved quickly without much tension.

41g-gynckol-_sx371_bo1204203200_Not so in Stones of Remembrance. This story follows Allaya as she returns to her childhood vacation home for the purpose of reconnecting with God after being estranged from her family. Allaya wrestles with long-held pain, questioning God’s plan and seeking to reconcile her heart to His—and He talks back to her. The same is true for another central character, Finn—a childhood friend of Allaya’s who is trying his best to run from the voice of God. Yes, God has a speaking part in this book. And it is powerful. Over and over, as both Allaya and Finn bring their questions before their Heavenly Father, the response they hear is one of unwavering love and compassion. The back-and-forth nature of their conversations with God is sometimes agonizing—depicting the reality that God doesn’t always speak when we want Him to, or give us the answer we want right away.

Julie writes each scene with depth; her use of imagery pulls you into the story. She has found a perfect balance between believable characters and riveting plot lines. She builds in scriptural truths without sounding cheesy, old-fashioned, or pious. And when it comes to relational tension? She’s got that down, too.

Stones of Remembrance is edgy; it’s “not your mama’s Christian fiction.” It’s real. It’s honest. It’s authentic.

~*~

You can get your hands on a copy of Stones of Remembrance by joining Julie’s email subscription at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I’d love to hear what you think about the book if you read it!

Connect with Julie on Facebook.

You can also check out Julie’s latest project, Nor Forsake, here.

The Poison of Perfection

Attention to details. 
Exquisite presentation.
Every little thing—plans, dreams, goals, emotions—in its cookie-cutter place.
Flawless execution.
No room for mistakes, tripping up, falling down.

 
Doesn’t sound so bad on the surface, does it?
The result could only be a job well done, right?
None of these things are bad in and of themselves.
Until we bundle them all together,
tie ourselves to the load
like a prisoner to a ball and chain
and call it
perfectionism.

  

 
My goodness—what a dirty word it is.

 
It sounds pretty.
It even looks pretty.

 
The very formation of it—all those curves and soft edges—make it flow right there on the page.

 
(You’re humming that John Legend song, now—aren’t you? Admit it. I won’t tell.)

 
Perfectionism.
We buy into it.
I bought into it.
We think we have to live up to it.
I thought I had to live up to it.

 
Perfectionism.
It lies to us, friends.
Perfectionism seductively whispers that we have to achieve it in order to be accepted or to be successful.
Perfectionism sneaks into our psyche, often early on in our lives, conditioning us to just try harder to be perfect, unfailingly good at everything.
Perfectionism chokes our ability to admit our helplessness.
Perfectionism paralyzes us with the fear that we can never measure up.

~*~

He sat across the table from me, composition book open before him, pencil in hand.
I spoke softly to him.
“All you have to do is try. It doesn’t have to be right; it doesn’t have to be perfect.
All I want you to do is try.”
His tears fell faster, sobs caught in his chest.
“You can do this. I know you can. I believe in you.”
~*~

Perfectionism is poison.
It makes us believe we can’t succeed before we even try.

I’m a recovering perfectionist who knows this all too well. It’s been an underlying current in my worldview since pre-adolescence years.

I know how difficult it is to live under this largely self-inflicted mandate to be the best at it all, to mask the less-than-pretty emotions, and to strive for impossible standards.

And when I see my students—at the very young, impressionable ages of 5, 6, 7—falling prey to the same mindset, my heart breaks.

It breaks when the simplest task releases a torrent of tears because the student can’t bear the thought of not getting it right.

He doesn’t know what I know, now—that the process of getting it wrong—is exactly how he will learn to get it right; getting it wrong will unlock the freedom to fall and get back up again. Getting it wrong will allow him to learn how strong, how smart, how resilient he is.

  

I sit across that table from him, silently praying for those lies to fall away, willing him to just try. Because I know he will succeed; he won’t get those words spelled correctly every time, but he will succeed. He will succeed because all he has to do is try his best.

~*~
Quietly waiting for him to calm down,
that still small voice whispers to my own heart:
You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have all the answers.
You just have to try.
Listen to what I’m saying to you—and just try.
Don’t fight so hard,
just rest in knowing that I want the best for you.
~*~

Our Heavenly Father doesn’t expect us to be perfect. He knows we can’t be. He came to the cross to be our Perfection through salvation. Any other attempt at achieving perfection is futile. We will chase our proverbial tails until we’re exhausted by pursuing perfection. It’s not worth it. I’d rather be imperfect and free to be who God created me to be than to spend all my energy stuffing that person into a package that appears perfect.

Friends, as we are running headlong into a season of trying to measure up, check all the boxes, prepare all the decorations, gifts, and parties, don’t give in to the lie of perfection. We aren’t perfect. Not one of us. We can’t be; we’re human. We can do our very best to make the most of the season. But what really matters is that we listen for His voice, follow His leading, and lay down our perfectionism for His holiness.