Sarah, one of the bravest people I know

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Sarah, Ben, Me (“the kids”)

I received an email today that made me smile, and it broke my heart.

I am someone who communicates my feelings by putting pen to paper (or cursor to screen?). It’s how I process all the feelings.

There is something defiantly beautiful about shining light on the things that wrap us in darkness.

So a few years ago when I learned that my dear friend, someone I refer to as my sister, received hard, sad, and dark news, I wanted to use all the words. I mean all the words.  But I couldn’t. It wasn’t my place. She wanted to share her news, in her way, when she decided she was ready.

Then today happened. Today she was ready.

My friend — my sister — Sarah, has ALS. She was diagnosed five years ago.

She’s ready to fight, and she’s doing that by raising money for the Golden West Chapter of the ALS Association. On Oct. 22 she’ll be participating in the Inland Empire Walk, and I’m looking forward to being there, cheering her on. The event is a fundraiser, with money going to ALS research.

If you know me, you know that Sarah, her dad, mom, and brother, took me in 20 years ago and became my de facto family. I love her so much, and I hate that ALS is now part of her story. I’m also proud of her. Sarah is so brave.

She’s fighting to leave a legacy.

Please consider donating to her fundraising efforts. For more information, check out her team page.

 

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The weight was lifted, a new door was opened

The music played loud and I could feel it in my chest. The bass rattling the base of my faith. My rock was huge compared to many of the others. It worked out well, because Jesus always works things out, because I had a huge leap to make and it would take a big rock to write it on. I could have written one word on my rock. One word to represent a step of faith. That would have been okay. It would have been easy. Instead I wrestled with God. There in that top-level seat, I fought with God in a toddler-like stubbornness complete with crossed arms and squinted eyes. I shook my head back and forth until finally, almost defiantly, I wrote on my rock. My white-knuckled hand hung over the white bag, full of the steps and leaps of faithful IF sisters.

And then, I let go.

Gently, like an exhale, a door closed.

***

photo (6)Last weekend I hugged my husband and four kids goodbye and traveled from my  beautifully-chaotic home in Southern California to Austin, Texas for the  IF:Gathering. In its second year, the conference consisted of phenomenal teaching,  powerful worship, and 2,000 women who attended, expectant.  We were joined by  women in homes and churches around the world, watching live online. It was two  days of looking inward and looking up. We heard Christ-centered messages instead  of watching speakers. We shook hands, hugged, and laughed, and we didn’t  compare or criticize. Always, in the speaking, in the music, in the personal touches,  we were encouraged. Gone was the fluff, replaced instead with a real, honest, raw  message of faith. It was a get-your-hands-dirty-be-courageous-focus- on-Jesus  weekend.

I traveled with two dear friends. We laughed, hard. We ate, a lot. We prayed, we walked, we brainstormed. We explored what it would be like to take the things we were learning and apply them to our ministries.

About 10 minutes after the 2014 IF:Gathering ended, we started talking about traveling to Austin in 2015. We were among those able to get tickets in the midst of slammed servers and a ton of women, all trying to do the same thing. We purchased our plane tickets in November, just before we sat around our family tables, giving thanks. And then, we waited. We waited as February neared. When it was finally time for IF, we left our husbands with reminders, instructions, suggestions and prayers.

I knew that God was going to move in some area of my life. I went, wringing my hands, excitedly fearful.

I listened as Christine Caine told us to let go of the past, that it would only hold us back. “You’re afraid to step into what will be because you’re hanging on to what is dead,” she said. “If the horse is dead, it’s time to dismount.”

Tucked in Jen Hatmaker’s message I heard her say, “Sometimes we go back to bondage because freedom is too painful to imagine.”

Bob Goff sat on stage next to his lovely wife, “Sweet” Maria, and pointed out that “people who love people the way Jesus did are constantly misunderstood.”

Bianca Olthoff reminded us that “there’s something beautiful in being obedient.”

Then, on Saturday when I was already all-in, Amena Brown happened. I can’t even. I can hardly string words together to convey the powerful way Amena uses words to share Jesus with the world. “Be strong and courageous,” that’s what played my heart strings.

After two days of asking ourselves, “If God is real, then what?” After two days of being challenged. After two days of personally standing in front of two doors, the conference drew to a close. In a theater steeped in musical history, 2,000 women sang their hearts out to Jesus. “You’re a good, good Father. It’s who You are, it’s who You are. I am loved by You. It’s who I am. It’s who I am…”

***

I finally wrote on my rock. My white-knuckled hand hung over the white bag, full of the steps and leaps of faithful IF sisters.

And then, I let go.

After five years of writing for the newspaper, I’m writing my final column this week.

Gently, like an exhale, a door closed.

Instead, I’ll focus my writing attention on Christ — on this blog, and on poetry that points right at Jesus.

A boulder-shaped weight lifted, and a new door flew open.

Dear Sisters

typewriterRecently I performed three pieces at Dwelling Place, a weekly women’s Bible study  at Southwest Church. This letter was among the three, and it was an honor to read it  to the ladies…

Dear Sisters,

A note of thanks.

To those whose hands are held together with arthritic knuckles and tissue-thin skin.  Thank you. Thank you because you remind me of my own grandmother. In the  wrinkles and crow’s feet, I see only laughter and wisdom’s wings. You have taught  me about hard work, dedication, patriotism, and a faith that rests on hymns, and  Christ’s feet. You may not feel as strong as you once did, but you have moved  mountains.

To the women whose youth was marked by an assassinated president and freedom fighters. My mother’s generation. The women who put the first cracks in the glass ceiling, but never forgot that Jesus is King. You watched a nation march for peace, and you wanted to shout from the hills that in the corn fields and the jungles, Christ was the answer. You helped raise an entire generation of women who are proud to be daughters of the King, and moms and employed – all at the same time – if we so choose. You paved the way for that. You raised up game changers in the Church. Not women who seek to rock the boat, but women faithful enough to step out of it. Those women you raised, many of them are my friends.

To those women. Thank you. For your stories and your experiences and all the things you bring to the table. For your passionate pursuit of God’s presence and the way you seek after Jesus with wild abandon. I see you. I see you fighting to tear down walls, yours and mine. I see you juggling responsibilities and spinning plates and wearing hats. I’ve seen you at your best and you’ve seen me at my worst. I watch you with your own daughters. Together we worry about our girls’ hearts and their futures, because we are a generation of mothers who drop our children off at school and pray they stay safe. Thank you for your examples of faith and joy. Thank you for the laughter.

My prayer for 2015 for all of us – from the ladies with great grandbabies to the ladies who are practically still babies – is that we keep our masks off, and our hearts open. That we are vulnerable, where His strength is perfected. That we let His light shine through the broken places. That we are so focused on our Father’s business, our lives can’t possibly be about show business. I want this to be the year that we unpack our baggage and stop trying to become what we think we should be, rather than becoming, simply and boldly, more like Jesus. I think, when we get to that place, we won’t care what people say about us, whether they like us or not. We’ll be so focused on Christ that our approval rating won’t matter.

My prayer is that we rend our hearts. That we act as a connector between the hurting world and the healing love of Christ, always keeping our lamps lit and our feet firmly planted. But never motivated by recognition.

I’m asking God that we not let our jobs define us. All the quarterly reports, commissions, paychecks, accolades — it can all become the rat race very quickly, and it can make it difficult to run the race. May we all be filled with the knowledge that we are His daughters, first. We are not what we do for a living.

In 2015, I pray that we stop comparing ourselves to one another. When we were created by our Father, He put so much thought into our giftings. It’s our uniqueness that makes us beautiful. How it must grieve His heart when His daughters miss how stunning they are because they’re so focused on how He created someone else.

This year, dear sisters, let’s not gossip. Hold me accountable, and I will return the favor, if you want me to. Our daughters, and sons, are watching.

And, let’s smile more. There is much to be joyful about. Because no matter what we do, how bad we mess up, or how difficult things seem, Jesus loves us huge. Let us all, humbly thank Him for what we have, and gently remind each other of those blessings when our complaining drowns out our worship.

What if the next 12 months were about stepping outside of our comfort zones, and thinking outside of the box? What if we do the thing God has been whispering to us, but we’ve been ignoring? What if, by doing that one thing, generations from now, someone will be saying that we moved mountains? Not for applause or promotion, but for His glory. Be brave, and do not conform.

Let’s vow, that this year, we become audacious in our faith. That we turn to the Word, talk to God, lift our hands, open our hearts, put on His armor and get radical. Because if every woman in the Church were to do all that, what else could it be but radical?

It will be a year of planted seeds and lives saved.

Finally, again, thank you. All of you. For teaching me and putting up with me, laughing at my jokes and overlooking my myriad faults. For taking my calls, holding my hand and encouraging me – with your words, your faith, and your example.

Sisters, may 2015 be the year everything becomes new again.

In Christ’s love,

Amelia

The journey is long, but the lane is beautiful: Autism Spectrum Disorder

I like to joke about the first time I met Lane. The story becomes more verbose each time.

I like to say that Lane’s mom came running out of the bathroom with her pants barely buttoned, waving a pregnancy test around. I also like to say I had to duck to avoid being sprayed with stuff flying off of it.

Kristen did come running from the bathroom and I did back away in fear that the test had residual “specimen” on it, but her pants were on and my best friend’s pee did not end up anywhere on me.

Also, I was the first to know. Her husband came in from the garage and I was all, “Hey Travis, your wife’s knocked up again…by you!” I quickly added, in case he was concerned. He thought I was just coming over to hang out.

I was honored to be there for that moment.

It was Oct. 5, 2005. My oldest daughter was 364-days old and took her first steps in Kristen’s living room that night.

And that night I met Lane; a purple line under the window of a pregnancy test.

None of us knew then that the journey of Lane’s life would be painfully arduous at times.

Or so utterly beautiful.

Lane is autistic.

His diagnosis didn’t come easily; the road was fraught with sadness, denial (Kristen’s the first to admit that) and, eventually, a certain sense of relief.

It was also a journey that I was afraid to take; I recognized Lane’s “red flags” when he was about 15-months old.  

Telling Kristen that I suspected Lane was autistic was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

Lane did a lot of things that concerned me, but one of the most obvious happened when he was about 24-months old and I was babysitting him. By then he had a baby sister so including my children, there were six kids at my house. The older ones were running around. It was loud and they were having a lot of fun.

Lane sat in the living room alone, rocking back and forth, playing with a string on his shirt. He did that for over an hour. There was total chaos all around him and he was completely unaware. I called him over to me. He walked about half way and stopped. There was a quarter-size spot on the carpet and he didn’t want to walk over it. He was so upset by the spot that it took me several minutes to calm him down.

Adding that to other things Lane did regularly, I was afraid he needed to be assessed.

How do you tell your best friend that you think their child is autistic?

On one hand I feared our relationship would be destroyed. What if I was wrong? What if she was offended?

On the other hand was Lane. If he was diagnosed, he would begin therapy and I knew the longer I waited to share my concerns, the greater the likelihood that some of his red flags would never go away.

The process was slow. I took baby steps until eventually, I ran at Kristen full-force.

For a couple of months I’d take her lead.

“Lane won’t stop playing with feet,” she’d say. “My feet especially, but other people’s too. Is that weird? It’s like he’s obsessed with toes. When I pull him away he screams and screams.”

“Hmmm, I don’t know if that’s totally normal,” I’d say tentatively.

After a few weeks I took the silent approach, hoping it would speak volumes.

“I wonder if Lane has something wrong with him,” Kristen would say. “He doesn’t respond to his name, ever.” 

Silence.

My husband would ask me regularly whether I’d told Kristen my concerns. I’d tell him I was trying, but couldn’t.

Then Kristen took Lane to his pediatrician, who asked her a few diagnostic questions.

In denial, Kristen played down his symptoms. Now she regrets it. At the time she was just trying to make it go away.

Or she’d say something like, “I just have a gut feeling that he’s going to be fine.”

To be honest, it was maddening.  

When she arranged to have Lane assessed, I was relieved.

When the report came back that he was fine, I’d had enough.

“Kristen I love you and I love Lane, but I really think that report is wrong,” I told her. “The organization didn’t send people with enough experience. They didn’t even spend that much time with him. The report says, ‘mild red flags.’ What does that even mean?”

Lane was reassessed by a well-trained team of experts and was definitively diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He began therapies right away.  

He’s high-functioning.

He has a great sense of humor.

He loves to go to the RC track with his dad.

He’d live on peanut butter sandwiches if his mom let him.

He has good mornings, like this morning.

He can have horrible ones too, like yesterday.

“It’s days like yesterday that drag me down,” Kristen told me on the phone earlier today.

He gets mad. He shuts down. He says whatever’s on his mind. Right now he’s especially fond of telling strangers what he thinks about their weight.

I want to take him to see all the mean girls from my high school years so he can express his opinions to them, but I don’t think Kristen would go for it.  

He has friends. He also thinks a lot of people are “boring” and he’ll tell them that.

He’s just, Lane.

Kristen’s faced with issues I’ll never have to face; Do we medicate or not? Do we mainstream or not? Do we request an aide or not? What’s the safest way to hold him when he’s angry? Do we explain his behavior in public by telling people he’s autistic?

Travis and Kristen have taken it in stride. They fought the diagnosis, now they fight the stigma. They’re advocates. They’re parents.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 110 children in the United States has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Those statistics are staggering.

Know the signs and symptoms. If you recognize them in your child, do something. If you recognize them in your best friend’s child, please don’t wait to compassionately and gently say something.

Lane and Kristen