Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Spirit

 Ginger Sad Man
Original image via Flickr Creative Commons via Doctor Popular
Some rights reserved.

Every year, I struggle to catch what they call "the Christmas spirit." I haven't had an easy time of it. Food restriction, isolation, and an utter lack of energy seem out of place in the season. As we understand it, anyway.

This year, it's easier. I'm savoring every victory, every step forward, the last melted drippings at the bottom of my ice cream bowl. And I do it without apology.

In a world in which darkness seems to win far too often, we should celebrate every ray of light, wherever it shines.

And yet, I sense how out of step I am with so many in my circle.

You don't live in a war zone four years and go blind to the devastation around you the moment a cease fire is declared in your corner of the world.

My prayers go to my new friend Talena, who spends her first holiday season without her youngest son.

To my mentor, Dixie Perry, and her family who relive the trauma of two years ago. They spent that Christmas in a sterile hospital far away from home waiting for healing that didn't come.

To my Jenny's family, who celebrate birthdays and holidays with a gaping hole in their midst.

To friends of my parents who lost their son to suicide last Christmas.

To my youth minister's family who'll spend their first Christmas without their dad/husband/son/brother/cousin.

To the grandmother raising her two young grandkids because living became too great a burden for their mom to bear.

To my cousin who still hasn't recovered from the dangerous infection inside her skull nor from the never-ending stack of brain surgery bills.

To sick parents of new friends hoping for another Christmas with their families.

To my sick friends still waiting for healing.

To those reeling from the massacres in Paris and San Bernadino.

It's hard to sing about peace on earth with all this blood on the ground.

Where do we fit in a world singing about jingle bells, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and being home for Christmas when the Home we long for seems so far away?

Maybe with the shepherds--humble, lonely, marginalized. Or maybe with the women in Jesus's lineage--Gentiles, sexual deviants, misfits.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The promise is yours when you throw yourself into the arms of Jesus. 

For some of us, it's worse than simply not relating to the culture of holiday commercials. We can't breathe for the grief pounding over us in wave after wave after wave.

Our Christmas dramas and sermons skip Herod's slaughter of the young children in Matthew 2. Who wants to think of dead babies at Christmas? But it's there, reminding us that Christ's coming isn't only for singing angels but for heartbroken mothers, too. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Maybe tragedy lies on the outskirts of your experience. You aren't weeping. You aren't dancing. You're tired. You want to stop all the stuff and rest a while.

Well, there's Mary.

 The Manger

All this activity bustles around her. A parade of dirty shepherds. Rumors of scandal. Majestic yet ominous prophecies at the temple. That mysterious star, lighting up the night sky above Bethlehem. The exhausting work of motherhood. Displacement from home and family. Loneliness. Responsibility. That new mama tangle of ecstasy and trepidation.

Instead of giving herself to the whirlwind, she silences her soul before the Creator in her arms--"But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

Year after year, I elbow my way through the huddle of excited shepherds and wealthy magi to gaze at my Lord Jesus by Mary's side. Whether I'm pondering the sword piercing my soul or the glory of God wrapped in human flesh, I feel welcome to kneel with her at the manger. To ruminate on things too weighty to say out loud.

But as my mentor points out, the real hope is that the manger is empty. As is the tomb.

Jesus grew up. He lived the life we should've lived, died the death we should've died, and rose from the grave so we can hum tidings of comfort and joy in this war-torn world.

The Christmas spirit isn't about presents and lights and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. It's about God and sinners reconciled.

It's about a King who didst leave His throne and kingly crown when He came to earth for me. A King, who for my sake became poor that through His poverty I might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9). A King willing to sit with me in the ash heap and lift me out in His good time (Psalm 113:7).

Ponder that.

It's okay to mourn this holiday season, but be brave enough to sing "joy to the world" in the middle of a sleepless night.

It's good to shout "glory to God in the highest," but don't be afraid to weep with those who weep.

In our dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light. He is our Living Hope, who secured for us an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled that does not fade.

Live the Christian paradox this Christmas.
Without apology.
Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
Until Christ comes again, that's the Christmas spirit. 

Ann Voskamp released this "Advent Lament" last year. It blessed me then; it blesses me now:

How can I pray for you this Christmas? Leave your request in the comments below. Or if you're celebrating an extra bowl of ice cream and need a dancing partner, I'm there. It will be my joy to pray and weep and celebrate with you as I cook and clean and ponder in the days ahead.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Extra Bowl of Ice Cream

Original image via Flickr Creative Commons via Nathan Cooke
Some rights reserved.

Last spring, I wrote this scene in which Declan (a healer) entices Mara (an ex-prostitute and recovering alcoholic) to eat by making ice cream, a rare treat in my medieval-esque world. The ice cream is shared six ways among the three women and the three men of the household, so everyone gets just enough. But when Mara finishes her portion, Declan quietly takes her empty bowl and replaces it with his full one.

After I wrote this, I asked the Lord, bold as brass, "Will you give me an extra bowl of ice cream?"

It wasn't that I didn't have enough. I had Him. But in the midst of sickness, injustice, grief, and loneliness, I wanted assurance that God was kind.

Now, I know "kind" doesn't always mean "nice." God isn't nice. Or safe.

But as Mr. Beaver will tell you, He is good, and that's sort of the same thing.

Rather than immediately serve up my request, God opened my eyes to the ice cream I already had--
a healthy marriage
two sweet ginger kids
toys on the floor
enough to eat
a warm house
hot detox baths
joy in writing
daily grappling matches with an almighty Sovereign
long naps and angel's food in the shade of a broom tree

But just because God didn't immediately answer my prayer the way I wanted Him to doesn't mean He said, "No."

Fast forward seven months...

He places lonely little me in a family of believers, the kind of Christian fellowship I've craved all my life. This family accepts me. God burdens their hearts for my sake, and they, in turn, plead my case before Him. I learn about their personal prayer ministry. I apply. I become their first recipient, and God uses that experience to free me from spiritual bondage I thought I'd never be rid of, to heal me of the emotional damage of the past, and to unravel this crazy illness one symptom at a time. 

I've written about how God healed my hands. Only two weeks later, there's more to report!

On December 3, it was 37 degrees. I experimented with my tolerance to outdoor temps. Here's a summary of how that went:

The video I took this morning...mainly for the entertainment of Madonna Gil and Torey Pop Morgan. You're welcome. ;)
Posted by Melissa Chapman Keaster on Thursday, December 3, 2015
(Hope you enjoyed the up close shot of my nostrils...*face palm*)

Now, 37 degrees is a far cry from 20 degrees, which was the temp the day I first reacted to the cold, but I fully expect to be fine when it gets that cold again. It seems to be what God is doing.

Last week, I woke up at 6am (or earlier) four days in a row and saw Micah off to school each day. Last year, that wouldn't have been physically possible. Even with naps. 

I also ate half a cookie *gasp* from a package. Granted, it was gluten-free and processed in a peanut-free facility, but I'm still calling it a win because my tongue didn't swell, I didn't cough, and my mouth didn't immediately fill with tiny sores. That being said, my original chocolate chip cookie recipe tastes better for anyone who wants to know.

Even with all this momentum, I didn't expect what happened this past Saturday. God's faithfulness was on full display. 

Some of you may know Stan and Stacey Thomason. Brandon and I met them not long after we began going to Crossroads in January 2008. Stacey and I bonded over our love for Jesus and real food, and though circumstances have kept us apart for the past several years, we've stayed in touch. One of the reasons for this is that back in 2009 the Lord gave me a word for her at a Beth Moore conference. 

During worship, God impressed upon my heart that Stacey would one day be a mother and that I needed to tell her. I did not want to do this. For several reasons. 

A) It was the first time God had ever given me a word to tell someone. New territory=lots of doubt and fear.
B) I was unworthy. Back then, I was in the early stages of recovery from a 5 year rebellion against God. Who was I to deliver any kind of message from Him?
C) I knew Stacey's deep desire for a child. I also knew her difficulties in having one. God in heaven, what if I was wrong? 

But somehow, I knew I must speak, as terrified as I was. I turned to her, touched her shoulder, and swallowed. "Stacey, I don't know how or when, but you will be a mother. God wanted me to tell you that."

(For the record: If I'd known then what I know now, I probably would've stated that differently. But there's grace for the young and stupid.)

We waited almost six years. Each time hope glimmered, I rejoiced. With each hope deferred, I grieved. I prayed. And, of course, I wondered if I'd spoken out of turn. What if my words had been for harm?

And then last year about this time, Stacey texted me a photo of an ultrasound. There she was--Miss Rinnah Nalon--growing in her brave birth mother's belly, awaiting the arms of a woman who would love her more than life.

Saturday was the celebration of Rinnah's official adoption.

And as if that wasn't good enough...

We arrived at the start of things. On the way inside, I noticed it was just us and one other family. I looked at the mask in my hand, then up at Brandon. "Mind if I try to go without it?"

He agreed after I promised to put it on the moment I felt myself getting sick. 

That moment never came.

I don't understand. There were candles burning. The scent of perfume wafted to my nose now and again. Two weeks ago, candles and perfume still bothered me. Even when the place began to fill up, I was fine

Before we left, I stole Stacey away into a corner where she and I marveled over God's incredible faithfulness. Brandon captured the moment for me.

How's that for an extra bowl of ice cream?

On the way home from the celebration, I asked Brandon, "Can I try church tomorrow?"

His hand went straight for his heart. 


He agreed. 

The next day, I enjoyed an entire church service MASK-FREE. Nearly three years have passed since the last time that happened. I alternated between tears of joy and ecstatic squeals in Brandon's ear--"I'm doing greeeaat!"

At the end of the service, we took a selfie to commemorate the extra extra bowl of ice cream: 

You are so brave and awesome to put up with my experiments after the horrors you've lived. Thank you, thank you for believing with me. Most men would've left long ago, but you've stayed. Enjoy God's reward, my love, as He restores to us the years the locusts have eaten.

Brandon and I agree. I won't experiment with triggers that have caused shock reactions. That means no pesticides, no peanuts, and no latex. If I'm accidentally exposed to one of these triggers and I'm fine, PRAISE THE LORD, but I won't go looking for trouble.

I'm not completely mask-free yet. I dropped off Sara at dance yesterday without my mask and regretted it. Something (Lysol maybe?) had been recently sprayed in the area. Not fun, but I didn't react as I once would have. Also, freshly mowed grass and gasoline are apparently still problematic. 

But dude! I can go to church without wearing a mask!!!! And I'm going to try Christmas gatherings this year!
"Trust in the Lord and do good. Dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness." (Psalm 37:3)
I hope you'll feast with me this Christmas. There's plenty of "ice cream" to go around, even in the darkness of this world. Turn off the news for half a second. Leave the fate of humanity in the hands of our able and almighty God.

Here's a spoon. Dig in!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Power of Worship

Worship changes things.

The posture of a soul. The climate of a household. The complaints of the body. There's all kinds of healing to be found in turning from ourselves and the concerns of the moment to behold the beauty of God.

I used to have episodes. Spells, I called them. In the evenings, when I was tired, drained, and weary of discomfort, I'd still have to cook. Cooking seemed a monumental task in those moments. Impossible. Living felt impossible.

Arthritis made it difficult to peel vegetables. Phantom stakes drove into the fibromyalgia points in my neck and shoulders. Heat radiated from my skin, tender to the touch. A tension headache would form, unable to be helped by medication or essential oils. I was too sensitive. Still am. And the worst part was the dark cloud which hung over my head, weighing me down.

Either the pain isn't as bad now or I'm used to it. Maybe both. The cloud still visits me sometimes. 

But God (a lovely pair of words, don't you think?) is faithful. He speaks into the cloud. Through the storm of pain and discouragement, I feel Him. Nudging me, reminding me. I'm here. Reach for me.

I always begin with prayer. I ask for help with plain words, sometimes gasped, depending on the level of discomfort. But help doesn't always immediately come.

I move on to gratitude. I reflect on God's kindnesses. They're always there, even in the midst of the ashes. Eventually, with eyes to see and practice, you don't have to look very hard.

A couple of years ago, I thanked God for the strength to stand at the kitchen counter. Back then, I didn't take that strength for granted. Then, maybe I thanked Him for the squash in my hands, which would bring nourishment to me and my family. The infant clinging to my ankles. The little boy bouncing off the furniture. The husband on his way home from work. The messy house.

Gratitude penetrates the cloud, but it doesn't always chase it away.

So then I preach to my soul. Words hidden in my heart find their way to my tongue, sounding from my pulpit at the kitchen sink.

"Why are you cast down, O my soul? Why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance." (Psalm 42:5)
"...If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32)
 Be bold. Be strong. The Lord your God is with you.
The cloud begins to lift.

But worship is the ace in the hole. It not only dissipates the cloud; it often relieves my physical discomfort. Or at least makes it less important.

Saturday night, I had a bad case of the ickies. You know what I'm talking about. I was all out of sorts, self-conscious about stupid things, and grumpy about having to figure out what to do with the pound of bison I'd thawed. My family was in a funk, too, and not the fun kind.

I remembered my ace, and decided to make it my first play.

Everyone was watching TV, so I grabbed my iPod, stuffed in my earbuds, and turned up a favorite worship album. I sang softly as I cooked and folded laundry, and you know what? I wasn't the only one helped. The atmosphere of our home shifted.

I've learned to expect that. Which is why worship has become my go to remedy for maladies of all kinds.

One night last week, Sara threw a major hissy fit right before bedtime. Girl's got a temper.

  I know you wouldn't believe it looking at this precious face.
But yeah...

I'm a firm believer in not going to bed angry, so I asked God how to help her. Silent prayers in the rocking chair weren't doing the trick, and she was too hysterical to pray herself. I sang a few of her favorite hymns. It helped, but she continued to thrash and cry, inconsolable.

I asked her to sing with me. We sang her current favorite, "At the Name of Jesus." Then she calmed enough to look up at me and say, "I wanna sing 'Jesus on da Cross.'"

I combed my fingers through her downy curls. "I don't know that one, Love. Will you teach it to me?"

Sara sang the following words to a simple melody which made the former music teacher in me proud. She made me repeat the phrases, which helped me to remember the lyrics long enough to copy them down in my journal:

Jesus on da cross...
His name is glorious...
He won da victory for us...
He died on da cross...
So He could save us...

Not a bad little song. And in the process of singing it, her anger evaporated. I tucked her into bed peaceful and content.

Now I wonder how many of my own passions I can reprocess into worship. Fan of experiments that I am, I'll be trying it out in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, what about you? Have you experienced the healing power of worship? Post your story in the comments below so we can all marvel at the healing weapon God has given us.

"Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth!
Sing out the honor of His name;
Make His praise glorious.
Say to God,
'How awesome are Your works!..."
(Psalm 66:1-3)

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Control Freak Learns to Dance

Greg's patience waned. Despite his commendable efforts, his choreography looked more like a fight than a dance. 

It was my fault. Troy, my partner, tried his best, but couldn't do anything with me. He laughed in frustration...probably to keep from crying. "I'm trying, Greg, but she's stronger than she looks."

It wasn't only that I wasn't a great dancer. It was who I was.

You see, dancing with a partner has the same effect as baking with small children--it exposes you for the control freak you are. 

"Relax. Let go," Greg said. 

I'd heard the equivalent of this admonition many times before. I've heard it many times since. 
"Let go and let God."
"Let it go, let it go...can't hold it back anymore..."
"Control is an illusion."

You'd think I would've learned by now. I mean, look. at. my. hair.

Not to mention that everything I once held dear crumbled to dust in my hands. But no, I content myself to build doomed castles with the rubble and sand.

I'm too easily content. 

And I'm too easily tricked into work that God has already done. I try to earn the love that's already mine. I try to manipulate God into doing what I want Him to do by good behavior. I seize the reins of my life, and instead of a dance, my walk with God looks like a fight, and I'm left tired and filthy and no better off for my efforts. 

I may be more aware of my lack of control today than I was five years ago, but that doesn't mean the control-freakiness is gone. It's still there. It's just sneakier than it was before.

It's like pride--every time I think I've beaten the habit, it pops back up somewhere a relentless game of Whack-A-Mole. 

One of my new friends sniffed me out during my prayer ministry session. "Melissa, who's responsible for your salvation?"
Well, this one's easy. "God."
"Who's responsible for keeping your salvation?"
"And who's responsible for your sanctification?"
"The Holy Spirit...God."
"What are you responsible for?"
I blinked. " cooperate?"

An interesting thing for the Lord to bring up. Earlier that day, I had read the story of the crippled woman Jesus healed in Luke 13. Verse 11 describes her as "a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up."

Jesus saw her. He called her to Him, and told her, "Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity."

Even after reading this, I asked God what I could do to prepare for my prayer ministry session. "Should I fast, God? If so, what should I fast from?"

Insert cosmic eye roll.

The crippled woman did nothing to secure her salvation. She was just there, hanging out in the synagogue, making space for Jesus.

For my healing, spiritual and physical, there is nothing to do. There's nothing I can do. I can't raise myself up. Every time I try, I mess up the dance.

As my friend told me, the only thing I'm responsible for is crucifying the flesh (Gal. 5:24). Though, to be truthful, I'd prefer a bazooka. A bazooka seems faster and less painful somehow.

But there is a way to forget the pain. To forget you're dying because you're so alive.

"Look into his eyes," Greg said. "Let him lead you."

I took a deep breath, locked eyes with Troy, and stepped into his arms.

And just like that, I was dancing.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


All last week, I struggled to describe what my personal prayer ministry session was like and what it meant to me. Within me lives a powerful drive to define things. But how does one do that when the thing lies on the outer edge of comprehension?

I should probably let things well alone and allow mystery to be mysterious, but that's not my way. My six year old's incessant need to understand? He gets it from his mama.

God often speaks to me through images and metaphor. Sometimes these come to me in dreams and visions, but more often than not, they come by way of the everyday. In conversation, a situation with the kids (this is a big one), something I read.

God is a master of giving moments meaning.

I had such a moment Sunday afternoon while reading C.S. Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader to the kids.

The book begins with this brilliant opening line:

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

Generally, I see myself in Edmund and Lucy more than Eustace. I've been both traitor and the lonely one who sees things no one else believes. But something happens to Eustace I very much relate to.

About halfway through the book, the adventurers make land on an island to repair the ship after a massive storm. A series of selfish actions brings Eustace to a cave belonging to a dragon. The dragon dies before Eustace's eyes, and so to escape the rain, Eustace takes shelter in the cave and discovers the dragon's horde. Now, as Lewis points out, Eustace hadn't read the right sort of books, so he didn't know as we do that dragon hordes are cursed.

Eustace slips his arm into a golden bracelet inlaid with diamonds, with the hope he'll be able to escape his comrades--whom he still believes to be insane--and use it to barter his way into a nearby country. Then he falls asleep. But when he wakes, Eustace makes a terrible discovery.

 Eustace is now a dragon. 

When he sees his reflection in the pool outside the cave, the sight breaks him. The bracelet, which he'd intended as a means of escape, is now a chain cutting into his flesh. It hurts. He can't get it off. A great, black hole of loneliness swallows him up because he realizes that as a dragon in a human company, unable to communicate or share life, he's isolated. And for the first time in the story, Eustace weeps.

It's a terrible thing to really see yourself.

Eustace manages to return to the others and communicate to them who he is, but no one possesses the power to help him. Save one.

In some kind of dream or vision, Eustace sees a huge lion approaching. Though he's afraid, he follows the lion to a garden he'd never been to or had even seen during his days as a dragon, though he'd explored the entire island in the air. At the heart of the garden is a well large enough to bathe in.

Eustace somehow knows if he could just get in that well, his arm, which throbs from the grip of the golden bracelet, would be healed. But the lion tells him he must undress first.

The lion isn't speaking in terms of clothing.

So Eustace starts scratching. At first, a few scales fall off. He scratches deeper until his whole skin peels away.

But it isn't enough. Underneath the skin is another just as hard, just as scaly as the first. So Eustace undresses again to no avail. And again. Still no good.

"You will have to let me undress you," the lion tells him.

And though Eustace is afraid of the lion's claws, he lies on his back and lets the lion do his work.

"The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off...Then he caught hold of me...and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again."
The bracelet falls off, and after a time, the lion takes Eustace out of the water and dresses him in new clothes. The lion, of course, is Aslan.

This is what my prayer session was like.

Suffering has a way of helping you see the dragon within. And let me tell you, it's a ghastly sight. For the past few years, I've been scratching at the scales, sometimes cutting into the knobby dragon skin beneath and wrestling my way out, but I could never get to the heart of the issues. I could never reach the layer of fresh, tender skin and come clean.

What the prayer team did for me was facilitate a meeting with Aslan. They showed me the way to the well.

Sometimes we need that. No matter how long we've walked with the Lord. No matter how sheltered we were as children. Regardless of our heritage, how strong people think we are, or how strong we think we should be. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ to come alongside us and show us the way to the well. Or at least remind us how to get there.

It's the way things work. God uses people. The Church is the visible invisible.

I didn't like exposing my dragon skin. The sight's pretty traumatic to me; exposing it to others wasn't fun. But I wanted that blasted bracelet off. I'd been in a fight with it for years, and I just couldn't win. I was desperate.

I needed Aslan's claws.

Once the Lord undressed me, He gave me something new to wear. (He never leaves us naked, you know.) And then he reminded me of the song of Eustace Scrubb.

Jennifer Simmans, a dear friend of mine and fellow music connoisseur, recommended Into the Lantern Waste, an album by Sarah Sparks. The songs are all inspired by C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. Each song boasts its own merits, but my favorite is "Eustace Scrubb." Of course.

I've copied the lyrics below, but you can listen to the song for free here. I recommend purchasing the entire album, particularly if you're a Lewis fan.

 For the first in my life
I’m not living a lie
And I hate who I am
I’ve become what I feared
And I cried dragon tears
Just to prove I’m a man

I tried to change my appearance but I am not changed
I’m just tired
I tried to heal myself long before I met your gaze
At the water
I’m at your feet
Would you tear into the deep of my heart
To heal me?

I’ve seen my own reflection
I know the pain I’m in
I’ve been a lonely wretch and
I can’t get out of it

As he looked through my eyes
At the things I despised
I felt pierced by his gaze
But he pealed off my skin
And he then threw me into
The water to save me

I wore this bracelet, bright and golden
That overnight became a chain
I was a lonely, wretched soul that
Lost in the dark cried out your Name
You cut me deep, I know I felt it
But it’s the sweetest kind of pain
Oh, sweet relief, You took my burdens
Oh, I believe! Oh, I believe!

So yeah...that's what it was like.

And you know, I didn't shock anyone. I didn't lose my new friends. They still love me, hot mess that I am, and don't think any less of me.

As for me, I'll love them forever, but none so much as the One who undragoned me and healed my arm. 

I'll sing His song till the day I die. And beyond.