Christmas Presence

My seven-year-old son made a grid-like calendar with pencil and computer paper; and he taped it to his wall next to his bed with scotch tape. This happened back in November and I believed he was counting down the days to his December birthday, or maybe even Christmas. I knew he was eagerly anticipating something to be so intentional with that pencil-drawn calendar scotch taped to his wall—each night he faithfully crossed off the day, each morning he accurately recited the date.

But then, his birthday came and went and he kept counting down—I assumed he was waiting for Christmas but I wondered . . . I finally asked him, “what is this thing that you are waiting for?”

He quickly replied, “Mom, you said I would need to wait six weeks until after your surgery before I could give you a big hug again. Every day when I used to get off of the bus, you stood in the front yard waiting for me, and I ran and jumped on you to give you a big welcome-home hug. I really miss that. I am counting down until six weeks after your surgery. I miss you standing in the front yard. I really miss those big hugs.”

My sweet son. My double mastectomy and reconstruction season has kept me from standing in the front yard with big welcome-home hugs every day. In this season, my children have been gently hugging me around my hips. I just had no idea how greatly my son missed my physical presence in the front yard. It seems like such a simple and mundane thing—standing in the front yard with a welcome home hug—but to my child, this mundane thing to me was everything to him.

This is how my children amaze me. They live with child-like excitement and wonder. They make calendars and count down to big welcome-home hugs. Children understand the importance of presence—so much so they want to be in the bathroom with you—children care about snuggles, and hugs, and books read before bedtime, and belly laughs over Apples to Apples. This is a good reminder to me in the busyness and what can feel like the mundane of the holiday season. My children teach me the importance of presence.

It’s not about what we are doing with our children during the holidays—it is about whether or not we are present with them in the moments.  Are we there just physically, or are we there wholly—seeking to enter in to the child-like excitement and wonder?

As I have grown-up, my task list has increased as well as my worries; I sometimes feel the importance of a second cup of coffee greater than the importance of Christmas Presence.

Presence is defined as existing, occurring, or being present in a place or thing. Presence is entering in and engaging with others in the front yard welcome-home hugs of every day life. Presence is wholly living and evidence of holiness—dwelling among the little ones God has given to us.

Christmas Presence is living like Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us), Matthew 1:23.

Jesus came to Earth to give the world the gift of Christmas Presence. As humans we needed a God who would dwell among us. Presence, dwelling, and wholly living are the balm to all the longings of our human hearts—even when we are grown and we all too easily forget—glory is seen in the presence and the dwelling. Glory is seen in a God who knows our humanity because He dwelt among us.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth, John 1:14.

Christmas Presence is the greatest gift. As parents, we get to show this kind of love to our children. I don’t want to been grown and forgetful, I want to be child-like with the kind of excitement that causes me to make a grid-like calendar and scotch tape it to my bedroom wall—I want to long for presence more than I long for more coffee.

I want to live like Jesus with those around me, I want to be present and live wholly. I want to see the beauty of an every day welcome-home hug. Christmas Presence is what our hearts are all longing for, it is why we need a God who would dwell among us. It is children who are sweet reminders of the gift of Christmas Presence—counting down to the simple and important things like welcome-home hugs.

If you have grown and forgotten about Christmas Presence, there is great hope in a God who fully sees you, loves you, died for you, forgives you, and longs for you to return to him. He doesn’t require you to do anything but turn to him, he is waiting with a welcome home hug.

It Takes Courage

“It’s Christmas and we are all in misery.”

A Griswold family famous line from the holiday favorite, Christmas Vacation.

I laugh at this line every time I watch the movie. I laugh because the holidays can induce misery. Unhealed grief resurfaces, we long for broken relationships to be healed, we are reminded of difficult family dynamics, and we see evidence of brokenness in the visual reminder of who is no longer sitting with us around our Christmas Trees. I can’t sing some Christmas songs without big rolling tears running down my cheeks.

It takes courage to face the holidays with a heart-attitude of joy. Human nature is bent toward letting the misery in and rolling around in it for a while—for me, I rolled in misery for decades. In the Bible, Jesus refers to us as sheep, and sheep like stink (John 10). It takes intention to see beauty among the thorns. It takes hope to look forward to the things that are unseen.

Courage

It’s Christmas and we all need some courage. Courage is defined as strength in the face of great pain or grief.

I want to zoom in here on my definition of strength before I go on with courage. Strength is not defined by marching through a hard process without stumbling. Strength is stumbling though the hard things. Strength is falling down, but a continuous forward movement—even in the weariness of life. Strength is found by leaning on God and letting him hold us, even when we can’t hold up ourselves.

Nehemiah 8:10 Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Courage is stumbling towards God in the face of great holiday misery. It takes courage to fight for joy.

The Intention to Live Courageously

Living courageously involves a lot of intention. It takes discipline to find the beauty among the thorns. It takes intention to focus on the beauty and not roll in the enticing stink of holiday misery.

It takes intention to not just simply make it through the holidays, but en-joy the glimpses of beauty among the thorns.

Joshua 1:9 is a verse I tell my children often: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. This is a verse on how we should live. But Moses tells Joshua in the verse before how to live courageously, with strength. 

Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Joshua 1:8. You cannot live courageously without the spiritual eyes to see the beauty among the thorns. You cannot strengthen your spiritual eyes without knowing who God is by reading his word. This takes intention—this is the intention to live courageously and also an invitation to prosperous living. 

Courage and Hopefulness 

It’s Christmas and we are courageously living because we have hope. There is a reason why we feel the weight of misery during the holiday season. It is a reminder that this world is not the way it is supposed to be. Holiday misery is a reminder that we need the rescuing hope of the gospel. The gospel is simply the truth that we are stumbling, and we need Jesus. We are in misery, but all around us there is hope if we live courageously enough to see it.

Try singing your favorite Christmas Hymn without hearing the gospel. Now that I live intentionally and courageously, I can’t sing a single hymn without singing about the world’s brokenness, misery, and need for saving—and how that saving comes by seeing, with hopefulness, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. He is the beauty among the thorns of this world. We are stumbling, but we can be hopeful because God is making all things new in Jesus.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33)

Again, the Bible is where you find truth. We can only know what Jesus has said if we read the Bible. But in His words, there is peace—even in times of holiday misery. The world is a place of great tribulation. I miss my mother who passed twenty years ago so much during the holidays, I am estranged from my father because of difficult family dynamics, and I have had a hard season of walking through a double mastectomy and reconstruction. I want to indulge in the pain and the grief, but it takes courage to fight for joy with intention.

It’s Christmas and we may all be in misery, but it takes courage to fight for joy. The beauty among the thorns of this world is a baby found wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. In him there is great power over misery. May you see him through any amount of misery this holiday season.

Silent Night

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm all is bright,
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child,
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth;
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Silent night, holy night,
Here at last, healing light,
From the heavenly kingdom sent,
Abundant grace for our intent.
Jesus, salvation for all.
Jesus, salvation for all.

Silent night, holy night,
Sleeps the world in peace tonight.
God sends his Son to earth below,
A Child from whom all blessings flow.
Jesus embraces mankind.
Jesus embraces mankind.

Silent night, holy night,
Mindful of mankind’s plight,
The Lord in Heav’n on high decreed,
From earthly woes we would be freed.
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born. 
Christ the Savior is born.

Need a Bible for Christmas? I recommend this one: ESV Bible

A Beautiful Surrender

My plan for this fall was to enjoy my new volunteer role as a Regional Advisor to Women’s Ministries in Mid America by attending conferences, connecting with women in my region, and connecting women to other women to begin to build a network of women’s ministry leaders in our region; specifically building a network of co-leadership between older and younger women.

Slowly Unraveled: Changed from the Inside Out, my first bookis also in formatting while I type this post. This fall was also supposed to be a busy season of touching up my book and getting it ready for formatting and publication.

What has actually happened this fall was not at all what I had planned. This fall, God has brought me to a season of surrender—I can’t even open the door to let the dog out or move the apple juice from the refrigerator to the counter. I have only typed one hundred and fifty words at this point of this blog post and I am already beginning to experience fatigue and soreness.

I am in a season of surrender where God has brought me to a place where I need others to hold me up and support me. I have attended zero conferences and I have only been able to connect with women via email, Facebook, and over the phone.

A season of surrender is a hard pill for me to swallow. Many of the threads of my story are tangled up in self-preservation, boot-strap pulling,  and doing things all on my own. The words, “I need help” are three words I rarely string together.

But in this season of my recovery from a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy and my husband’s recovery from a foot surgery to repair a almost complete tear in his lisfranc ligament, I am learning to see a beautiful surrender.

A Beautiful Surrender Witnessed

I witnessed a beautiful surrender one afternoon while waiting for the bus to come up the road. In the center of our front yard stands a large October Glory maple tree. At the end of every October its leaves begin to turn bright orange from top to bottom. Most of the bright orange leaves have fallen, been swept up by a rake, and now sit in a landscaping bag on the side of our home. But a few bright orange leaves are still abiding on the large maple tree’s branches. Not abiding by much, but waiting for the time to come for their beautiful surrender.

As I waited for the bus I watched the beautiful surrender of one of those tiny orange leaves. The wind came and that little leaf could not hold on any longer. The wind then carried the leaf off the branch and then gently swirled the leaf to the ground. The leaf did what it was made to do and the tree will continue to survive even after the surrendering of this leaf. The October Glory will be dormant for a time, but soon it will bear new blossoms and leaves in the spring.

A Beautiful Surrender of the Physical Body

It was a beautiful surrender to walk in the bilateral prophylactic journey I have been on. Sometimes in this life we come to a place where we need to let pieces of ourselves go and lie dormant for time so we can bear new and healthier fruit in our lives.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

This tiny death of losing pieces of myself, will bear much healthier fruit and a long life with my husband and my children. It has been a beautiful surrender to see my journey in this way. A small death of one part tiny part of me will bring new life for the whole.

After my preventative double mastectomy I now have a less than one percent chance of developing breast cancer, and I will never need to have another mammogram.

I will need to lay dormant for a time, but soon will bear new healthier fruit just like the October Glory in my front yard.

A Beautiful Surrender of the Heart

This journey has also been a beautiful surrender of my heart. As a woman who would like to do things her own way because this is how she has had to do them for as long as she can remember, it has been quite a beautiful surrender to rely on others. I have been humbled and I have been blessed. My mother has been gone for twenty years, most of our family lives far away, and my father who lives geographically close, has chosen to not be active in my life.

We had sweet help from my out of town grandmother and my out of town sister the week of my surgery. But the other six weeks of my husband’s and my long recovery I’ve had to ask for a lot of help from those outside of my family. This has pulled on the threads of my mother’s passing from breast cancer and facing the reality that although I want my father to be in my life—he is not here. These are layers in this story—and this has been a part of this beautiful surrender.

I have had to ask people who are not family to drive my children to ballet, baseball, and soccer, sweet neighbors have raked up my leaves, church members have planted mums and mowed our grass, friends have driven us to doctor’s appointments, friends have picked up Click List orders, and friends have made a Target runs to pick up ballet tights when the last pair had too many holes for Lydia to wear to class.

It is a beautiful surrender to come to terms with the truth that my family does not function in the way that I wish it could and let go of expectations I had for my biological family members. I’ve had to realize that God is surrounding me with a new family—people unrelated to me who care for me and hold me up when I can’t hold up myself. This I am grateful for—I don’t believe I could achieve this level of gratitude  without the beautiful surrender of what has passed to embrace the beauty of the new family God has surrounded me with during this hard time. It has been beautiful for my children and myself to see the people who have shown up and tangibly loved us for the last six weeks.

While this beautiful surrender is more painful and harder than the physical surrender, this is beautiful surrender is freeing and good. The continuous pain of having expectations for people who don’t care to support you is a continuous pain I am grateful to surrender. While I have done my share of counseling and my share to reach out to my father and reconcile a relationship with him, I am not responsible for how he responds to me. This hurts as a child with one living parent, but I have to let this go.

This beautiful surrender of the heart is painful like the physical surrender of my body—but it is a small emotional death that will bring emotional wholeness in the long term.

In the beautiful surrender of my myopic view family, I can see the bigger picture and the larger family God is providing for me through His people.

A Beautiful Surrender of the Spirit

This life is an entire journey of letting go. I am only in my thirties and I’ve had to let go of so much so many times. But in the letting go of who we are or what we think others should be there is so much healing and so much life. When we myopically focus on all we know or all we have ever known, we are limited.

When we beautifully surrender our myopic focus is when we can see the bigger things God has in store for us. His faithfulness, His love, His people, and His church—all in trusting in His Son and His sacrifice on the cross.

Jesus is the ultimate picture of a beautiful surrender. His death gives the opportunity for many to live.

I did not grow up as a reformed evangelical. I started reading the Bible at age twenty-one. Many wonder how I have ended up a pastor’s wife, let alone a church-going woman.

I don’t have many answers to that question. I am just about as unworthy as anyone and I have done more than my fair share of rebelling against God and how He calls men and women to live.

But I do know it was a beautiful surrender when I let go of my myopic view of who I thought God was and I began to read His Word. For so long I only trusted in my self-constructed worldview of individualism and self-sufficiency.

It is a beautiful surrender to let that go. And a beautiful surrender to trust in Jesus. It is a slow process that is the same as the beautiful physical surrender of my body and the beautiful surrender of my heart. At times, trusting in Jesus has left me feeling bare-boned and as vulnerable as a dormant bare tree.

I am in a constant season of surrender where nothing seems to go as I have planned—but far better. Because I trust in a God who holds me up and provides for me in ways that are outside of my myopic view. I have gone from rarely stringing the words “I need help” together to “I Need Thee Every Hour” and this is not because of any magic formula or anything spectacular I have done. This is simply because I trust in the beautiful surrender of Jesus and His death on the cross.

If you have been following this bilateral prophylactic mastectomy story of mine, my ultimate hope is that you will consider letting go and embracing what can be new for you— beautiful surrenders, and an Ultimate Hope.

It is a great time of year to consider Jesus. His life, His death, and His eternal hope for you. It is a beautiful surrender to trust in Him. It is letting go of who you thought you were and embracing who He is making you to be.

In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I pray he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:12-17 paraphrased).

In The Little Things

I am in my fifth day of recovering from my bilateral prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction. The surgery was longer than expected, but was more than I could have asked for or hoped for.

I had two major God-sized prayers for this surgery: one of them was I hoped to have the breast implants put in on the same day as the tissue removal. Normally, tissue expanders are placed in the breasts after tissue removal to give the skin time to heal, expand, and breathe. This process can be painful,  lasts about three months, and requires a second surgery where the surgeon then replaces the tissue expanders with implants. Most people who walk in the bilateral prophylactic mastectomy path have at least two surgeries.

The second major God-sized prayer is more of an “I will tell you when I see you in person” kind of thing and not really a blog post kind of thing (sorry).

But I can tell you both of the these God-sized things I hoped for were things my surgeons were not sure they could do.

My surgery began right at 830am and I started waking up on my way to post-op recovery around 5pm. You all, that was a long day for my husband.

In post-op recovery I learned that both of my God-sized prayers were answered. The implants were able to go in the same day as the tissue removal, and my other hoped for outcome went better than the surgeons hoped for as well! I will only need to have one surgery, and I am praising the Lord!

The breast surgeon also needed to remove three lymph nodes. All my breast tissue and the three lymph nodes were sent to pathology to be thoroughly checked for pre-cancerous or cancerous cells.

My pathology report came back just yesterday and all my breast tissue and lymph nodes were cancer free. I am praising the Lord for this too!

As I thought about writing this update to let you all know how I am doing and thank you all for your prayers, emails, texts, flowers, cards, gift cards—I just kept thinking about how amazing it is that God cares for us in the little things. A bilateral prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction was a hard decision for me personally— I was angry, I was scared, and I was really sad. But God cared for me in the little things all along the way.

This is not because I have an outstanding or perfect faith, I have been human and I have been a hot mess. God has cared for me in the little things because of who He is and He is faithful. God cares about the little things because He is an intimate God who knows what we need even when sometimes we don’t know what we need for ourselves.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me. (Psalm 139)

I can feel God’s hand upon me because I recognize that He is showing up in the little things and He is weaving a beautiful redemptive story for me in all of this.

He knows what I need and He has been faithful to provide for me. Tonight, as I write this post, I am just so full and so grateful.

How you can continue to pray:

Pray that I would be a good patient and find joy in sitting on the couch and recovering well. As a task-driven woman this is a tough thing for me.

Pray I would be patient and kind to my family if the kitchen countertop has a drinking glass or two on it or when I happen to see an iPad lightning cable lying on the ground. Personally I spend too much time caring about the little things—in a bad way.

Pray for healing, the story is not over yet for my two God-sized reconstruction requests. I need to heal well.

One of my prescribed medications has been giving me some really terrible headaches. I have been given the okay to stop the medicine causing the headaches, but please pray the headaches stay away. It is difficult to rest with the headaches I have been having and difficult to sit in a room with any kind of light or sound.

Please pray for my husband and my children as we adjust to a new normal. My husband is still recovering from foot surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right foot four weeks ago.

Thank you for connecting and caring in the big and the little things. And thanks be to God who cares in the big and little things too.

Bilateral Pro-phy-WHAT?

 

Sometimes when unexpected news comes, it is shock that follows.

I experienced the feeling of shock at the age of seven, sitting on a couch in the formal living room in my childhood home when my mom told me she was sick.

I experienced the feeling of shock when I lost my mother to breast cancer at age fourteen.

I experienced shock when I sat in a genetic counselor’s office a few months ago and heard the words bilateral prophylactic mastectomy.

Bilateral Pro—phy—WHAT? 

Currently I am thirty-five, a pastor’s wife, and a mom to four kids under the age of ten. I am healthy. I just had my yearly physical and I had a clear reading on my latest mammogram.

When I was given the medical recommendation to have a preventative double mastectomy, it felt a whole lot like being thrown into a cold pool for a polar plunge. In many ways I felt like my head was below water and my extremities were paralyzed, unable to tred (breaststroke? not sure if that’s funny) in the waters where I had just been thrown.

Bilateral Pro—phy—WHY?

God has been preparing me for such a time as this. He has been writing a redemptive story for me in all of this, even from the time of my first feeling of shock at the age of seven.

Once I began to recognize the redemptive story God was writing for me, I was able to begin to tred water and think about the larger picture of bilateral pro—phy—why.

Why have all my breast tissue removed? Well, the PALB2 gene mutation increases my risk to 60%. One of my doctors said, “Rach, this is not a matter of if you get cancer, this is a matter of when.”

I have learned my mother’s cancer was unresponsive to treatment. And I have learned that the PALB2 gene is twice as likely to develop into the kind of breast cancer that does not respond to treatment. So this means this is not a matter of if I get cancer, this is a matter of when I will get deadly breast cancer.

A bilateral prophylactic double mastectomy reduces my risk of breast cancer from 60% to almost 0%. For me this means I am freed from the fear and anxiety I experience with each preventative scan.

Why am I choosing to have my breast tissue removed? I want to be healthy for my family.

Bilateral Pro—phy—HOW?

As far as I understand this, the bilateral prophylactic mastectomy will consist of two parts: the breast tissue removal done by a breast surgeon and the reconstruction done by the plastic surgeon. Step one: all my breast tissue will be removed and checked for any signs of breast cancer. Step two: in the same surgery a plastic surgeon will then begin reconstruction.

Reconstruction can be done in two ways: DIEP Flap where natural tissue is taken from another part of your body and moved to your breasts or implants. The DIEP Flap procedure is one surgery and a longer one time recovery. The implant reconstruction process is a shorter two part surgery and a shorter recovery.

After much consideration, at this time I believe the best option for me is to go the implant route. I have had four c-sections and I am not sure I can handle recovering from an abdominal incision at the same time as recovering from mastectomy incisions.

Bilateral Pro—phy—WHEN?

My surgery is scheduled for November 5th. I would appreciate your prayers as I adjust to this new normal over the next few months.

A bilateral prophylactic mastectomy may be a hard thing, but it is the right thing for me. I believe God renews us in the hard things . . . I believe He is good in the hard things . . . I believe He will be my help and my strength in this bilateral pro—phy—WHAT hard thing.