A year ago, my sweet friend Grace was in town with her husband and kids for their Spring Break. We met up at Disneyland, and I had a great time catching up with them. Somehow the topic of friends came up, and I told her that I had been working through the loss of some key relationships in my life. Grace mentioned that there are “seasons for everything.”

I’ve heard that phrase all my life, and I’ve always kind of hated—or dreaded—it. When I think of “seasons” as a metaphorical thing, that usually means something has died—a dream, a job, a friendship, an adventure, etc. When someone says to me “there are seasons to friendships,” that bums me out because the season I’m scarred by after 6 years in the Midwest is winter, so that’s my natural association. And in winter, things die. That’s been my experience with seasons, both literal and metaphorical.

I’m sure I just nodded my head that day with Grace, trying not to be the Debbie Downer I sometimes am. But then on my hour drive home, I was thinking it over a bit more. It occurred to me—apparently for the first time—that “seasons” are cyclical. I mean it’s literally how they work. Yes, winter comes and things die. But winter is not the end of the story! Spring follows winter and new life comes again.

In my experience with metaphorical “seasons” in life, I thought of them stopping at winter, but that wasn’t the whole story. Sitting in traffic on the 5 freeway, my friendship with Jerri came to mind. All my life, “seasons” as applied to friendships has meant death and sadness since, in my mind, once you’re in, you’re in for life, so if a friendship has a “season,” that’s the saddest thing. I hate friendships ending. But my friendship with Jerri epitomizes an “aha!” moment for me regarding seasons.

Jerri and I met when we were paired up as co-counselors at summer camp in 2007 when I was 20 and she was 19. We had a ton of adventures, were famous (or infamous?) for doing something dumb and then saying “My baddddd,” and got super close as we tried to be adults to twelve 13 and 14-year-old girls.

Jerri is from the city where I was born, and her house was 15 minutes or less from ours in North Dallas. We had all these mutual friends—including my high school principal and his family—but somehow had never met. We even went to the same church when I was a child, so we actually may have met, but since she was a grade below me, I think we were ships in the night at Sunday School.

Anyway, Jerri became a really good friend. We worked at camp the next summer together, too, and though we weren’t co-counselors again, we stayed close. We would meet up if we were both home from college on breaks, getting shaved ice and having a good time. After college, I moved to Hawaii, and she was finishing up school in Texas. When she and her husband got married, I was invited to their small wedding, but it was in Florida and I was in Hawaii without enough personal days from my teaching job to make the journey mid-semester.

A few years passed, and my distance in Hawaii plus then move back to Wheaton for grad school was coupled with Jerri and her husband’s move to another state and starting their family, and we lost regular touch. Nothing happened and there was no falling out; we were still friends and would text each other on birthdays and like each other’s social media posts, but life happened.

Fast forward to the summer of 2019: Jerri and her family moved out to Southern California. We hadn’t truly talked outside of social media likes and comments in five or six years, but in August of that year, I met her at Disneyland, seeing her for the first time in close to a decade and meeting her kids for the first time.

Since then, in the past 4 years Jerri has easily become one of my best friends, and her family has completely welcomed me into their lives. Their being in Southern California may be good for the work they’re doing here and the lives they’re impacting, but if they did none of that, selfishly, their being here has changed the game for me and made California feel like home.

They are an absolute gift and have been a lifeline. They invited me to spend Thanksgiving with them in 2021, and we camped together at Yosemite like I was just one of the family. Their kids call me courtesy of Alexa and their technological wizardry, and it’s one of my favorite things when I see “Jerri” calling and pick up to silence on the other end before I hear giggles over speakerphone.

Back to that day at Disneyland: on my hour drive home after time with Grace and her family, Jerri’s name came to mind as a revelation: seasons don’t just mean things die. Yes, that can happen. But new life comes again. Winter is limited because spring is on its tail.

Jerri’s was a friendship I never could have scripted coming back around in such full force—two North Dallas girls who met at summer camp in the Midwest in 2007 and now live in Southern California in 2023. (Let it be known that Texans don’t migrate out to California; the opposite is nearly always true.)

Jerri’s friendship is so hopeful for me—the reminder that yes, there are seasons to everything, but that can be a hopeful reality! Seasons are cyclical, after all. We never know how God is going to bring something back around; it may be years down the road, but He can use it, redeem it, and renew it.

Some friendships die forever. Some dreams die forever. Some jobs die forever. But spring still comes and life comes around again—new friendships, new dreams, new jobs. And sometimes, those same friendships re-bloom, old dreams find new life, and former jobs come back around again.

I went back to Disneyland to see my friend Grace and her family again the next day, and I was so excited to tell her about the lightbulb moment I’d had. I’m sure she was thinking, “Yes, Hannah, everyone in the world knows that seasons are cyclical. This is not a new revelation” (except Grace is the sweetest, so I’m sure she was genuinely excited for me). But I just needed to tell her that her words had gotten me thinking, realizing the gift of my friend Jerri and the hope her friendship has given me for other friendships or dreams which have gone the way of metaphorical “seasons.”

Now when I think of seasons, there’s still sadness at change and things ending. I still hate losing friendships. Friends are still in for life in my book. There’s a lot to grieve with “winter” seasons, and I don’t want to Pollyanna this thing and gloss over the sadness of seasons ending. Sometimes things are really final and we don’t see the new blooms.

But Jerri is a gift—for so many reasons—in showing me that, even 7 or 8 years later, a friendship or dream or job or adventure can surprise you, coming back around and becoming central in your life. God is weaving all things together in ways we just can’t see, viewing things through a glass dimly as we are this side of heaven.

My hope is that, if you’re a “realist” [semi-pessimist?] like me and have tended to see metaphorical “seasons” as code for “everything ends or dies,” you’ll remember that following winter, spring comes again.

God can revive all things, and though He may not revive every thing, life and new growth come again. We never know how He might revive things we thought were lost in winter years ago. Seasons can definitely be bittersweet: there’s the end of something and yet new things will begin and old ones may just surprise us in the best way down the road.

With spring in its prime, I hope this encourages you. I hope if you see a bloom or sign of new life, you’re reminded of our hope in God who brings things back around in ways we can’t anticipate, who has a season for everything. Even amidst the sadness of a season ending, I hope you’ll see that seasons aren’t just winter; new life comes again and God has a way of reviving things, bringing hope in ways we can’t imagine.

The Flower Fields in Carlsbad, CA
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Whispers Between the Mic Moments (or, the impact of someone like Rod King)

I want to tell you a story about my friend, colleague, and former boss Rod King. It’s actually a couple of stories, and it goes way back before I ever worked for him for a year, and this story is going to involve a lot more than one year of my teaching job. I am who I am, and I write how I write—this I’m at peace with. Read ahead for more on my developing understanding of women in ministry, grace, and the impact a few well-timed words and actions can have.

I grew up in the Bible Belt, attending pretty standard conservative churches, schools, and camps where women were welcomed but not typically found in leadership roles. I didn’t really think anything of it because it felt normal, like the usual situation.

My parents have three daughters, and as such, my dad has always empowered us (1) to do what God is calling us to do and (2) to do whatever we set our minds to (though as I’ve gotten older my dad has leveled with me more realistically and said, “Look, at this point, you’re not going to be a doctor.” Fair, but I appreciate that as a child he told me I could be anything.)

When I got to college at Wheaton, people would talk about whether they were “complementarian” or “egalitarian,” and I said, “huh?” Everyone had an opinion about the matter but me, it seemed. I probably would have told you that I wasn’t opposed to women in leadership in ministry, but it just wasn’t my preference. I think if you had pressed me to defend my stance it would’ve come down to: “Men are pastors because they just are and that’s all I’ve known, and there are those passages about women in ministry leadership so let’s just keep men in ministry leadership roles.”

When it came down to it, it was more about what I’d grown up around and experienced and not about any theological convictions. I certainly had no ambition to ever be a “woman pastor” or “woman in ministry leadership;” I was preparing to teach, after all. (If you’re a hardline complementarian, resist the urge to roll your eyes and call this heresy; keep reading.)

At my first teaching job, I saw a need at the Christian school where I taught for better spiritual formation—of students, but also of the faculty and staff at Christian schools. After a few years of teaching (interspersed with writing my book), I headed back to Wheaton for grad school. It was there that I started doing research on spiritual formation, and anytime we talked about “pastoral care,” I saw the need for and gap of a type of “pastoral care” found in Christian education.

Many educators at private, Christian schools pursue that route because they love teaching and education, but they also see their vocation as “ministering” to students and helping them see God’s truth in whatever subject they’re exploring. They aren’t “pastors,” but they are doing ministry daily. One of the things my research uncovered is that just because someone has attended church and small groups all of their life does not inherently mean that person knows how to lead a small group or disciple or do ministry; experiencing something does not necessarily mean being able to teach or translate it. Furthermore, just because someone has experienced the integration of faith and learning does not mean that person knows how to integrate faith and learning. 

It was in grad school that my heart for spiritual formation and a type of “pastoral care” for Christian educators grew, and it’s what I centered my Master’s thesis equivalent around. I created a curriculum and was so excited to think about being able to facilitate conversations amongst people like my former colleagues at the Christian school which I so loved in Hawaii. I loved my time in grad school—I took incredible ownership of my learning, and I soaked it all in. I felt empowered and ready to go change the world and use my degree in Christian Formation and Ministry: Bible, Theology, and Ministry “for Christ and His Kingdom.”

After graduating from grad school, returning to Hawaii looked like a sure thing, and then suddenly it wasn’t but instead was a very securely closed door. Scrambling in the summer when few teaching jobs are “left,” I found a job in California—a place I never thought I’d ever voluntarily live, but a place that I truly figured was on the way to Hawaii so would make my return to the islands way easier logistically. (I was traumatized by shipping my stuff back and forth from Texas to Hawaii many times, and sometimes God uses dumb reasons like “California is on the way logistically” to get you where you never thought you’d ever choose to go.)

So I ended up accepting a teaching job at a small Christian school in North County San Diego. And it was absolutely where I was supposed to be, and there were incredible moments of deep conversation and “textured” discussions around literature and faith and life with my students—about how life is complex and needs to be lived in the tension and yet God is good.

But there were also moments I wanted to run down the hallway screaming, “I can’t take it anymore!” and effectively tender my resignation. One of the most noteworthy was when a mom interrupted me while I was teaching to yell at me in front of my students saying, “How dare you call my daughter out in front of everyone,” by which she meant I had told her daughter to put her phone away after she walked in late, disrupting class, Starbucks in hand. I have many friends and family members who’ve taught, but none of them have ever heard of a parent interrupting class to publicly yell at a teacher (the irony of her yelling at me in front of my students was not lost on me as she was upset that I’d called her daughter out in front of the class).

Amidst those moments, I thought, “this is a total waste of my M.A. and not at all what I was hoping to do with my degree since I’m essentially doing the same job as before grad school but with worse pay.” When it came time to fill out the “intent to return” form Christian schools dole out each year, I checked “uncertain” or something along those lines, and I filled in the reasoning box. I wrote that I wanted to use my degree in Bible, theology, and ministry to facilitate spiritual formation and not just grade papers forever.

A week or two later, one of the administrators approached me on the football field and asked to hear more about what I meant. I shared my heart for doing “soul care” and some trainings on how to integrate faith and learning amongst the teachers, and the administrator said there might be a way to do that. After many conversations, I was asked to help run high school chapel, teach my 5 English courses, and lead once a month faculty meetings with the curriculum I’d created as part of my master’s capstone. So despite my “run-down-the-hallway-screaming” vibes, I stuck around another year.

And wow. I’m so grateful I did for all that I learned, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to use that curriculum and implement some deeper conversations around spiritual formation and faith and learning. Yet what a year that was for me as a “woman in ministry leadership” and for my education on the topic. 

Having not set out to be a “woman pastor,” I never saw myself as that. I facilitated chapel in that I helped us come up with a theme for the year, and then I got speakers to come and share each week, based on that theme in an intentional progression. I was the main chapel speaker exactly one time that year—and I wouldn’t have called myself a “pastor” but just a teacher who already taught male and female students and was just gathering them into a larger room to share with all of them plus a few more and their teachers at one time.

With the curriculum in the monthly faculty meetings, I was never aiming to be a “campus pastor” to the teachers—men or women or both—but someone who had a degree and had done extensive research on spiritual formation in schools and training in discipleship and faith and learning. My role was to facilitate this curriculum which incorporated readings from other biblically sound and well-respected believers, and I crafted it with intent, research, and the aim for spiritual growth, adding in discussion questions along the way. At no point was I standing up in front of my colleagues preaching to them each month. The only time I ever did, it was my week to share in my Friday devotional, something that no one thought twice about women teachers doing and which happened almost every Friday.  

Yet the pushback—both overt and covert—I received for leading chapel and those monthly faculty meetings was eye-opening. Again, I’m a Dallas girl who grew up in Bible churches and went to Wheaton twice—no part of me is revolutionary or what I like to call “Ambitious.” I do have ambitions, but you know those “Ambitious” people—they set out to write books and change the world and convert entire countries and turn things on their heels. If I’ve ever done any of that it’s been because I reluctantly obeyed and did the thing, not because I wanted to or had some grand Ambition to do so.

I found out at a meeting with the administrators one day after school about some of the pushback—not from the administrators of the school, but from others tied to the church there, and I was a little blindsided since it wasn’t like I was setting out to be a campus “pastor” or anything. I literally had a degree in Bible, theology, and ministry, and I was using my master’s thesis project in the way it was dreamed up, researched, and intended. No part of that was “setting out to upend tradition” or the Bible or anything else along those lines.

I could go on, but my aim is not to throw others under the bus. That year was wildly formative for me and my faith and my views on women in ministry leadership. Contrary to the hopes of those who opposed my filling that role on campus, their opposition actually forced me to confront what I felt about women in ministry, and I concluded that I just might be more egalitarian than complementarian. Gasp! Shock! Right?!?

Here’s the thing: I can get into the theology of it, but I won’t right here. And I’m not going to die on this hill because I don’t really want to die on many hills anyway, but it comes down to this: I truly felt like God had opened doors for me to serve in the ways I was serving that year. I hadn’t pushed for my position; aside from writing on a half sheet of paper known as the “intent to return” form, I hadn’t pressed for it at all. People approached me, saying, “hmm, you have this interest, we have a need, and you also have the background and credentials to fill this need. Let’s do this.” So I did it. I walked through the open door.

But wow, did I have a lot of heart-to-hearts with God that year—really good conversations amidst feeling like a (small) target was on my back where I would ask Him, “Lord, have I been ‘rebellious’ in pursuing this? Am I overstepping my role and Your Word? The last thing I want to do is go against Your Word; I want to submit to You and be obedient, and yet, I feel like You just placed this in my lap.” I prayed that He would make it abundantly clear if I was being “rebellious” or even sinful in pursuing these “ministry leadership roles.” 

I should make clear that I had people in my corner, people who had my back. It was a few people with some weight to their titles adjacent to the school who were opposed to my two roles, but I was shielded from a lot of the full opposition by friends and bosses, and I was fortunate in that. 

But here we come to my boss, Rod King. After that meeting with administrators that afternoon where it was made clear that those adjacent to the school weren’t okay with me “leading” chapel [finding speakers] and teaching the men teachers [facilitating my curriculum of others’ words], I went home frustrated and a little tense, feeling that target on my back.

It’s hard as a woman in this situation because if you try to defend yourself, people who are totally opposed to women in ministry leadership positions to begin with can say you’re not being submissive in your defense but are just proving their point. It might seem ironic that it helps to have men defend women in these situations since some assume women are trying to prove that “they don’t need anyone defending them,” but that’s a narrow view of what’s going on. Most of the time this isn’t about a 1970s bra burning campaign to be sinful and rebellious “by preaching Jesus to menfolk.” Most of the time, it’s women who feel called and equipped to steward their lives in a way it seems like God is leading. I won’t say that for all women in ministry—some might be scheming and in pursuit of power, but if so, they’re in better company than just women in that regard.

The next day after this meeting was a chapel day, so I was feeling a little exposed after the previous afternoon’s revelations. I was standing up at the front of the chapel, mic in my hand, welcoming students in, when Rod, our high school principal in his first year at the school, came over, and between my announcements on the mic whispered to me, “About yesterday…I’m a ‘grace guy’ and I’m of the mindset that if you have the background, education, and gifting in it—and you clearly do—then why would we just go out and get a man to do the job?” I turned to look at him and smiled, then I lifted the mic back up and said, “Okay, go ahead and take a seat, students!”

It was that quick of a moment, but it was formative. [I’m writing a long missive here about it, after all.] It was formative because it showed me that others had my back, that I was not crazy or being openly rebellious for taking a step forward into what others had approached me about and what I felt like was an open door. And it was formative because I realized then, “Yes! That! That is my view of egalitarianism and complementarianism, of women in ministry.”

Again, we could get more into the theology of everything, and I could tell you about my time studying the oft-quoted passages in the letters to the church of Corinth…from my time studying in Corinth. And I’m still not sure that I want a woman pastoring and shepherding my church community, but I wonder how much of that is because of cultural norms and what I grew up with versus how much is theological (jury’s not back on that because I am still a Bible-belt grown human and have a very high view of scripture at the end of the day, and I can make a case in many ways, but lots of them come out looking very cultural).

But as Rod said, “If we have someone who’s got the background, education, and gifting in [fill in the blank], why would we just go out and get a man to do the job?” That pretty much sums up my view of women in ministry leadership. With caution and wanting to be obedient in God’s eyes, I state that, by the way. It’s not about “men are the worst and women are the future, so women pastors HUZZAH!”

I was in a particular situation where I felt called, I was approached about using something in my background and repertoire, and I felt like God was opening a door. So target on my back or not, I proceeded in a posture of humility before God, seeking Him to stop me if I was out of bounds or being disobedient, and He never did.

Rod King was a father of three daughters, all somewhat close to my age. I have to think that he was, indeed, a “grace guy,” but that his understanding of what women are capable of and called to has probably also been influenced by having three daughters. Honestly, my dad would probably say he’s a complementarian and be opposed to women pastors in theory (and maybe in practice, too), but he has empowered me to pursue where God has been leading and calling me, including “leading chapel” and “teaching menfolk in a spiritual formation curriculum.”

Rod’s words were so simple and quick—and the memory of them makes me smile since they were offered as a whisper up in front of the whole high school student body and faculty and staff between my mic announcements—and yet, they were so empowering. They were like a lightbulb, summing up what I’d been coming to define as my understanding of women in ministry leadership: if God has gifted me, provided an opportunity for me, given me the credibility and credentials for it, and called me to it, why should I stand back and defer to a man who is “qualified” because he is a man to fill the role God has placed before me? (That sounds really cynical—I don’t think all men are falsely called “qualified” simply because they are men, but hopefully you get the point from Rod’s words.)

This whole story is completely self-referential and not universally applicable, I know. But the point of this story is that my understanding of women in ministry leadership roles never really had to be defined until I found myself in a “ministry leadership role” with a small target on my back (I know this isn’t persecution, here. First world problems, for sure). And when it came to a head and I had to reckon with whether I was being disobedient or wrong to step into a ministry role very much laid right before me, Rod King’s words were the encouragement and empowerment I needed, a defusal of the vulnerability I felt up there on the mic “leading chapel” after I’d found out people were upset that I was leading chapel because I was a woman.

So many others had my back and were supportive of me that year—some in administrative roles, too. And I’m grateful to Rod for so many more things than just that moment between mic announcements that no one else probably even noticed.

When it was time to decide what I was going to do—to return or not after my second year at the school—I was in a big state of indecision. That fantasy of running through the hallway screaming was a daily dream of mine in my second year at the school, and yet stepping out into the unknown was terrifying. A known terrible entity is sometimes more alluring than an unknown future for someone who’s an Enneagram 6 like me.

Other administrators needed an answer—and I got it because I wanted them to have time to hire my replacement if needed—and they offered all kinds of advice. One told me to look for where there’s peace, and that’s probably good advice for others, but back to my being an Enneagram 6…. I realized there wasn’t peace either way. If I stayed, I had no peace because I would be returning to the land of a target on my back and countless hours of mental anguish over grading papers and a job that was draining me. If I left, stepping out to start what would become Still Waters, there was no peace because I had to pay my bills, and it’s a terrifying thing to quit your job at the age of 30 when you’re single and don’t have another income to fall back on as you step out in faith. 

Rod offered a different strategy. He came into my classroom and sat on a stool and asked me what I was thinking and how I was processing. I shared with him about my indecision, my heart for the cancer community, and more. Rod had battled pancreatic cancer for a long time, and while I think then a lot of the school assumed cancer was in his past, he explained to me that he was still undergoing treatment. I don’t think he shared with everyone, but cancer is that community you never want to be a part of but once you’re in, you’re in. 

He also said, “I wish I could tell you what to do because I’ve been in your shoes, and I know exactly what you’re struggling with—to stay or to go. But I can’t tell you what you should do because I’ve been in your shoes. But I will pray for you.” He knew that I needed to be obedient to the Lord at the end of the day, and I’m so grateful he didn’t try to sway me, indecisive and fueled by duty and obligation as I was (and am). He was my boss and modeled professionalism plus honesty and grace in a way many others didn’t or haven’t. That conversation gave me great freedom in my decision because I knew that I wasn’t “letting anyone down” if I left; I needed to truly seek and then follow where God was leading. (Spoiler alert: I did end up leaving and starting Still Waters, and I’m grateful to Rod’s encouragement in that, too.)

I found out last night that Rod passed away from his long walk with cancer on Sunday. The way I’ve just shared, you might think that I worked for him for 10 years. I worked for Rod King for exactly 1 school year. And I hope this isn’t one of those, “I knew him well!” stories which make me think of high school when people even slightly acquainted with someone want to be “famous-adjacent” when something happens with that person.

I didn’t know Rod super well. I worked for him for just one year. But it was a year in which I found my voice in some ways, where things that I’d long been learning and my understanding of God’s calling and equipping started cementing into place. Others were part of that year and my subsequent learning, too, and I don’t want to overstate how well I knew Rod and how he “forever changed my life!” in some insincere way.

But amidst the running-down-the-hallway-screaming dream I held in that contentious and incredibly exhausting year, Rod King was a gift to us at the school. He was a gift to me in letting me know he had my back, in helping me crystallize what I’d been learning about my role and calling “despite being a woman in the church,” and in giving me the freedom to decide where God was leading me.

Men, we need more leaders like Rod in ministry and in the church and parachurch organizations (schools included). We need more people who are “grace guys,” who can empower those feeling targeted or like they’re in tenuous positions despite God’s calling and opening of doors and opportunities. We need more leaders who aren’t just looking out for themselves and the best interests of their institutions but would rather look out for the person and God’s hand on their lives.

I’m grateful for Rod King, and I’m so saddened by his loss. Complex as life is, I’m also so grateful he’s no longer in pain and no longer waging war with cancer. Cancer can suck it. I’m grieved for his daughters and for his wife. I’m grieved for the school because he was a voice of reason and being a “grace guy” made him a gift to that school. Rod was a great man and leader—not perfect since no one is, but a grace guy of a leader.

I think of that moment at the front of the chapel a lot—of the impact one person can have with one sentence whispered between public mic announcements in a well-timed and well-executed encouraging moment. We as the church have some issues, for sure, but there are daily miracles like that moment which transform, crystallize, and empower, and God is mightily at work in those whispers-between-the-mic moments. If you can give those moments, do. If you receive them, thank whoever gives them to you and make sure they know the impact a simple [compound] sentence can make.

Additional Thoughts on the Loneliest Year

Since I last posted (see “The Loneliest Year of My Life”), I’ve been talking with more people who’ve felt as I have this year, and I’ve talked with others in different situations who have been through the wringer in their own way this year.

I feel like I missed some things in my last post, partly because some of the context for my loneliness is in a post I wrote in May but haven’t yet shared and partly because my last post was already long (shocking, I know). So I wanted to add three more clarifying thoughts, or three “footnotes.”

First of all, Covid has not caused my loneliness. That’s been lurking beneath the surface for the past couple years, and it really ramped up in January, sparking a frien-tervention before Covid even became forefront in our consciousness. Covid has, however, magnified my loneliness because of the resultant and even sometimes needed isolation. So isolation during Covid has exacerbated the struggle I’ve been sitting in for a while. I don’t know why it feels important for me to say that, but it does.

Maybe it’s because I don’t want to give “2020” and “covid” too much personified power, but maybe it’s also because I know once Covid “ends” and stay at home orders lift, the loneliness will likely still be there. There will just be more distractions and ways to divert my attention from the pain of that loneliness.

Secondly, I said it in my last post and I 100% mean it: This is not an indictment of anyone for not reaching out or for closing their doors and homes. In 2020 it feels like we have to have a million disclaimers about everything we say so as not to offend, but I’m hopeful that at the end of the day, we can give more benefit of the doubt to others and trust their hearts—who we know them to be—rather than supposed offenses in social media and tone-less words on a screen or page.

I digress though. Back to my second point. One of the things I learned with much more angst when walking through cancer was to be grateful for those who show up rather than disappointed by those who don’t. So many people showed up then—many unexpectedly!—so I wasn’t dwelling on who didn’t show up most of the time. But afterwards, I looked back and it took the slightest bit of conscious effort not to note the absence or void of some I assumed would have shown up.

I got over it—and pretty quickly at that—because of who did show up, and I learned in processing that many people just don’t show up because they have no idea where to start or how to do so, or because they’re going through their own muddled mess. Let me tell you: It is far more fulfilling to look around and be grateful for who shows up and then look up and see how God has provided than to look around and count anyone who’s absent.

In this season, I’ve leaned on that lesson much more readily and less painfully (progress, woohoo!). I am sincerely grateful for those who’ve shown up, opened doors and lives, and been the lifeline in this season. I’m not keeping track of who has closed doors nor marking people on the naughty list (had to; it’s December).

In addition to having (hopefully) more maturity than when I was 21 and struggling with those who showed up and didn’t, I also have learned tons about grace in the past few years. “Grace” is what my name means, and the more I learn about it, the less I know I have inside and more I need to receive from God. I am the worst, but God’s holding me to a standard of grace, not perfection or success, so I’m getting much better at resting in my worst-ness.

Furthermore on the grace train, in this season, I have 100% NOT shown up for people. Hopefully that hasn’t been across the board—I’d like to think I’ve shown up for at least one person in 2020—but I’ve pretty much been working off of a 2 month delay with following up and being intentional and even just responding to texts and DMs this year. There’s not going to be any way I can actually explain it to you since, if ya girl can throw up some sardonic post on her Instagram story, one would think she should be able to respond to a text.

All I can say is that my head and emotions have felt at or above capacity for much of this year. That doesn’t make logical sense for why I can do one thing and then not simply respond to a text, but when your brain is over capacity, the logic center is a shamble shack (it’s science). I know that makes no sense, but when your brain is a shamble shack, the logic center is thrown off, so that reinforces my point—there is no logical reason because there is no logic happening with my 2 month delay and failure to show up.

I’m not sharing that as an excuse—remember, I’m the worst and I know that. I share about my shamble shack capacity struggles and ineptitude at responding this year because I know if that’s where I’m at, others who “haven’t shown up” this year are probably fighting off their own shambles in some capacity (because truly, we all are and could all use more empathy and compassion since 2020 is the shambliest of all shacks).

In wrapping up my second point, the challenge is to look around and make the choice to be grateful for those who’ve shown up. And the second part of that challenge is to extend more grace and empathy to those who haven’t while praising God for what He has given and how He has provided.

My final point is this: I know that last post was dark and probably heavy. Much of 2020 has been just that, and seasons of 2018 and 2019 have been, too. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” has long been one of the most sobering and poignant song lyrics for me. But if you look back just a bit further in “O Holy Night,” the lyrics right before my favorite lines are equally powerful: “Long lay the world in sin and error, pining til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

This previous couplet is why “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” is my favorite. The incarnation—God showing up!—is my thrill of hope and the reason why my weary shamble shack self rejoices. Out of my being the worst, the most in need of grace, and the least proficient at living up to my name PLUS my brokenness in the pit and deep loneliness—out of all that, Christ appeared and the soul felt its worth.

Wow. That is why the pit hasn’t swallowed me in this apparently never-ending season. It’s probably come close, but that thrill of hope, where Christ chose to enter in through the incarnation, to enter into my mess and to choose that knowing how shambley I am—that is why my weary heart rejoices. And it’s able to because I know Him and my soul feels its worth in Him alone.

I don’t have a spouse or my own family I’m building, if I stay in California I will never own a home, my job was tenuous this year, my rent increased as my pay got cut, my health is often an annoying hassle, and I fail at even simply just showing up for people who’ve shown up for me and aren’t asking a ton. Let me reassure you that my soul isn’t feeling its worth from anything but the incarnation, from Christ entering in. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again and again: read Steve Garber’s Visions of Vocation for more on the hope and profundity of the incarnation (not a theology book, though, so #understandable).

To summarize: Covid hasn’t caused this deep loneliness, though it has certainly magnified it and stripped away any veneer of distraction from it. Amidst this, I’m grateful for the gift of those who have shown up, for their presence and open doors, and I’m reminded to look around at those who’ve shown up then look up in gratitude rather than taking stock of who hasn’t shown up. That is a way more freeing posture, especially when I have failed to show up for others, too, in this season.

And finally, my experience has been that there are some really dark days. I hate being so self-referential, and I know we all have different experiences, but I’m also convinced most of us walk through those really dark days. This is not the first time I have sat in seasons of loneliness and pain, and it won’t be the last. The reason I have hope amidst that is because out of the long seasons of waiting, of “pining” for relief and rescue, the incarnation happened. Christ chose to enter in to our world and mess, causing the “soul to feel its worth” and bringing that thrill of hope a very weary world is desperate for.

The end. Off to work I go (also had to). Please don’t let any of this or my shamble shack self stop you from reaching out. I’m working on cutting my 2 month delay to merely a 1 month delay, I promise. But in the meantime, I’m resting in grace and the hope of the incarnation.

The Loneliest Year of my Life

2020 has not been the hardest year of my life (cancer card), but it has certainly been the loneliest. It’s very likely been that way for a lot of people across the board.

I’ve had multiple friends stay really low-key and quarantined, which for them means taking their spouse and children on family road trips and not seeing anyone else. Or they’ve bubbled with their parents nearby.
What’s the equivalent for a single person who doesn’t have roommates and all her family lives in different states? I quarantine/do “bubbled” household vacations with…Netflix? That’s coming from someone split on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, so I can only imagine the pain and deep loneliness for single, roommate-less people without family nearby who are also high extroverts.

Before anyone gets upset and thinks this is an indictment of them (gosh, 2020 is exhausting), it’s not. Also, I’m not looking for a trophy or medal for “you had it the hardest” pity. I don’t think I’ve had it the hardest by ANY means. It’s just been uniquely challenging with its isolation.

I’ve actually had my core group in CA invite me over—and more importantly—IN to their lives in this season. Because truly, that’s what others isolating themselves with their family unit feels like: a closed door to their lives from my place of already-deep loneliness before covid hit.

It’s been a long season of having friends who are cautious saying, “Hey, we’re just kind of isolating with our household” which is great and admirable and I GET it. We’re literally being told to do that. But then I start to wonder, “Am I just really selfish for wanting to see people and not caring about covid deaths?” until I realize that for some friends, isolating with their household means family vacations in a bubble or road trips with the 4-6 people of their immediate family unit. Again, does isolating with my household or bubble vacationing for me mean more time on my iPad but in a new location?

I genuinely know that people are being cautious and NOT callous by isolating or insulating, but over time, it starts to feel like closed doors. I know we have to be cautious, but there’s also a cost in that.

Again, this is not an indictment of anyone and not meant to shame anyone. It’s just to share a perspective that, at least among my friends, is somewhat unique since most of my friends and acquaintances are married, have kids, and/or live near family.

This season has genuinely made me grateful for those who, instead of hunkering down and shutting doors, have reached out and invited me in. I’m so grateful for people like Jerri and Stephen Middleton—both of whom have been really cautious and covid-safe—and yet, they have invited me into their world amidst that caution because they see the cost and toll. They have been a lifeline and gift. Where others are closing doors—100% understandably!— the Middletons have opened their door despite their own caution with the virus, and that’s been a gift.

Or take my core friend group which has been cautious and covid-safe overall. None of us has thrown caution to the wind and been crazy, but what would seem wrong and unsafe to others has been a lifeline in a suffocating season. They’ve said, “Hannah, get in the car and come see and spend the night with us.” Again, they’ve opened doors in a world where there’s been a lot of insulating and closing of doors. My friend group and the Middletons may have done it just because it’s who they are, but I also think they’ve been very intentional about saying, “Hey, let’s take care of our friend.”

My parents were a lifeline in May, letting me crash with them for a month during the first stay at home order after 6 weeks alone in my 1 bedroom apartment; my small group has been an encouragement out of the depths; my cousin and her husband inviting me on their trip in October was life-giving and a breath of fresh air; my sister and brother in law rescued me for Easter; my boss called early on recognizing that I’m in a uniquely isolated situation; and these friends above have been a lifeline locally.

This is going to sound really dramatic, but let me tell you: masks may well save lives, but so have these friends’ actions.

Cancer was severely isolating in some ways, though I’ve written about how people rallied around me and I felt such an incredible sense of community. It’s isolating in the sense that few people around you truly get what’s going on and what you’re going through. Even if you’re surrounded by people, you’re the one getting filled with chemo at the end of the day; you’re the one losing your hair.

But this season has been isolating on a whole other level. During cancer people tried to understand and they rallied around me, and I so appreciate that. During Covid, people are intentionally closing doors—which I know is what we’re being told and mandated to do, and it’s probably wise for public physical health—but hopefully you can see the challenge.

All of this when I’d like to consider myself well-adjusted with some good community (and I see a psychiatrist every month—not actually for counseling, but every time I know I could bring it up when my doc asks how life is going). So if that’s how I’m feeling, I just can’t imagine what it’s like out there. It’s been challenging and there’s really no better word for it than utterly lonely.

On top of all of the other ways the world has felt stalled in covid, it also feels like I’m sitting out another year of my life as the clock ticks, while my friends continue to build their families and I continue to sit alone under stay at home guidelines and orders in my apartment, watching some of my hopes slip even further out of view.

I know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and that being stuck with a spouse and kids has had its own challenges. I’m 100% sure I would be so sick of a spouse or kids or roommate or family after 9 months at home with them. I’m not saying it’s been a walk in the park for others because I’m sure it would drive me crazy, and I don’t know a single person who’s coming out of 2020 unscathed in some or multiple ways. I’m saying that at end of the day, most people I know are isolating or at home with someone who either chose them or is stuck with them, and I’ve got lots of streaming apps.

I try to have a point to what I write, a “complete thought” of sorts. There’s not really one today.

I have friends whom I love arguing with me about the need for stay at home orders as I sit alone in my apartment, writing in the dark, feeling suffocated by another stay at home order that will go through Christmas. Travel is now “restricted” (though the state said they know they can’t enforce that, lol), and I know I will be judged by friends I love dearly and one-time acquaintances who follow me for some reason (honored, but nothing to see here) for traveling over Christmas. I also know that the pervading weight on my chest in view of 3 weeks of isolation even more strict than what I’ve been experiencing for 8 months since the last stay at home order means if I don’t travel to see loved ones for Christmas, the odds of me keeping my head above water for these next 3 weeks are not in my favor.

In May, I wrote a post which I haven’t yet shared because it’s probably the most honest and vulnerable thing I’ve written over the years. It feels too much—maybe too raw or just too honest. This one’s a close second. But I keep coming back to it and thinking I should share because I know there are others out there feeling as I am.

So maybe that’s the point of this post: to put words to what I know some of my other single, roommateless, and sometimes family-less friends are feeling, too. And if you read this and can be the Middletons or the “Wildcats 4ever” text thread or my parents, cousin, and small group to someone out there struggling under intensified isolation, be the lifeline, the open door they may be desperate for.

Jesus is my Rock, this I know. And I have spent some intense time with Him and had some raw and frequent, guttural conversations with Him this year (I know that’s not really the right use of guttural, but words escape how to describe some of my prayers from the depths). He has reached down from on high to sustain me despite the isolation—something He knows more deeply and profoundly than I do. He has also extended these few lifelines to me this year, and I am profoundly grateful. If I ever recover enough of myself out of this, I hope to repay them in kind.

Cancer Really Does a Number on People

I re-watched the show “Life Sentence” this weekend. It only ran for one season before it was cancelled, and it is drama to the max. Everything that can fall apart does—I’m talking divorce, drugs, jail, business failings, heart attacks, multiple love triangles, and cancer all in 13 episodes. Even though the CW was probably just trying to use “unexpectedly surviving cancer” as an interesting hook to draw in audiences, and even though it’s highly fictional and insane, it’s the third time I’ve watched the show.

The premise is that the protagonist Stella, played by Lucy Hale, has terminal cancer, so she lives life to the fullest and makes decisions based on only having 6 months left to live…but then her cancer is “cured.” (LOL did they consult an oncologist for the show?!? Based on Stella saying she’s not in remission; she’s “cured,” one wonders. Doctors don’t say “cured” with cancer; they say “remission.” I digress…) Suddenly, she faces “uncertain life” after having faced “certain death” for years, and she has to live with the consequences of living in the moment and living life to the fullest, starting with her marriage to a man she met on a last hurrah trip to Paris when both thought it would be a 6 month marriage at most.

My cancer had a really favorable prognosis, so I never felt like I was under a “death sentence.” Subsequently, I’ve also not felt like surviving cancer has been a life sentence. And virtually none of the dramatic events in the show happened to me. Still, I resonate with it if only for the underlying current running throughout of what a paradigm-shift cancer is. And in a much less dramatic way, the “What do you do with your life now that you have it back?” dilemma has been on my mind a time or two before.

Each time I’ve watched the show with all of its drama and all the fallout from Stella’s cancer—not just on her life but on each of her family members’ lives—I’ve thought, “Man, cancer really does a number on people.” I felt that again while binge watching the show a third time this weekend. No one’s left unaffected, or even really unscathed, likely the better description. It’s true in the series, and to a much less dramatic degree, it’s true of real life and cancer.

Two episodes in particular stand out as having moments similar to ones I’ve walked through. In the first instance, the family is selling their house, and Stella gives an emotional speech about how this is the place she always felt safe despite the terrifying uncertainty and odds she faced. I realized the first time I watched the series that that was 410—my childhood home—to me. Thank you, my parents’ Netflix account and the CW, for providing that free therapy for me to make that connection.

I found out I had cancer at a mall while everyone was Christmas shopping and probably escaping family on the day before Thanksgiving. What a bizarre and decidedly unsafe place to hear that news. I immediately drove home to my safe place, 410 Forest Oaks Drive, where, locked inside and closed off to passersby, mall loudspeaker announcements, and the world, we processed the news and started to make our plan of attack. And even though I moved on and away after cancer, 410 was super symbolic as a safe place for the next decade, a significant reason why selling it last year hit so hard.

The second moment which resonates so clearly is when Stella’s in the doctor’s office on a non-cancer-related visit, and the doctor says the innocuous phrase, “We ran a blood test” and pauses. Stella says, “Oh gosh. It’s back, isn’t it?!” It isn’t, in the end, but the news is about chemotherapy-related long term side effects. In terms of why this resonates, look: my cancer was the “good kind” and it’s not coming back at this point. I’m far more likely to come down with a secondary cancer related to my treatment for Hodgkin’s than I am to have a Hodgkin’s recurrence.

But that fact doesn’t mean when I find 3 swollen lymph nodes on the left side of my neck, I don’t start looking up what it could be if not Hodgkin’s—my equivalent of “Oh gosh. It’s back, isn’t it?” And even though I know they’re likely related to some random infection, that tumors don’t just “pop up” 3 in a row suddenly, and that tumors don’t usually hurt like one of these does, when these swollen lymph nodes haven’t gone away after a week, you better believe I’m starting to run through all the scenarios and potentialities for what I’ll do depending on news a, b, c, and more.

Here’s a glimpse into just some of my train of thought [neuroses?] along those lines:

  • “It’s 99% likely that’s it nothing, just some viral infection.”
  • Then, “Maybe it’s covid! I’d actually really prefer it to be covid over anything swollen lymph nodes on the left side of my neck could mean and have meant before.”
  • Then, “Well, if it’s Hodgkin’s, okay, great. I know how to do that.”
  • But then, “Almost 12 years out, I know my Hodgkin’s isn’t coming back…so if this isn’t Hodgkin’s, it’s gonna be a lot worse, and that’s an actual possibility.”
  • Then, “If it’s not Hodgkins, yikes, and it’s probably not great at this point if it originated somewhere else but has now traveled to my lymphatic system.”
  • And finally, “If it’s worse, do I fight it? Do I let this be my swan song and make a quick bucket list and start tackling it?”
  • Oh but there’s the special 2020 bonus: “Could I even do anything bucket-list-like in 2020 anyway when nothing’s open?”

These thoughts would surely lead to a clinical diagnosis of hypochondria or paranoia…for anyone but a cancer survivor, that is—and specifically a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor who just discovered 3 swollen lymph nodes on the left side of her neck (the Hodgkin’s side) which haven’t gone away for over a week now.

I genuinely do not think about cancer every day, or at least about my own cancer or about getting it again too often. But “Man, cancer really does a number on people” is my concluding thought when cancer creeps into the realm of possibilities and I go all-case-scenarios in my mind. I don’t think about it all the time, but it’s inescapable in some ways and inevitably comes back to mind. What’s hidden underneath that general conclusion I make—that cancer really does a number on people—is more likely the truth that I’m part of that people group. Cancer has done a number on ME, much as I don’t like to admit it.

I want to say I’ve totally moved on. I genuinely think I have in so many ways. It’s almost like cancer is the wound that’s scabbed over and so close to becoming a scar that you wouldn’t even notice it…but it’s still capable of bleeding since it hasn’t quite transformed into 100% scar yet.

It’s hard not to start cataloging everything else that’s been off lately, thinking, “What else have I missed? Will I find out I had all these symptoms I just wrote off?” And that’s not even because of my own experience since I found my only symptoms—tumors—by stage 2. I mean, I didn’t find the tumors in my chest, but because I had symptomless Hodgkin’s, the tumors above my collar bone were my only sign something was wrong, and praise the Lord I noticed those early. Wondering if there are other things I’ve missed now comes after my grandma, aunt, friend, athletic trainer, professor, and more have passed away from cancer after months of explaining away symptoms and being diagnosed too late as a result.

This weekend has felt paralyzing in some ways, but not because of fear. I’m not actually that afraid. I’ve been through “the worst” before, and I can hang (honestly because I know God will hang and give me what I need if it’s something). Rather, I think what’s paralyzing is the not knowing. If I can find out what’s going on, I can at least make a plan, but right now, I’m sitting between, “This is some painless viral infection that’ll go away totally on its own and I’ll roll my eyes about it” and “This is bad.” It’s hard to move to action because it genuinely might be nothing, but sitting around waiting just feels so aimless. There’s a shadow hovering, haunting. Doing anything or making any plans feels futile if life is about to be turned upside down again. But planning for the worst seems equally pointless and an overreaction when it’s likely just some rando-harmless infection I’ll be ashamed to have even mentioned.

So why mention it, then? I almost didn’t. It feels really self-indulgent and probably foolish to say anything when I think these are just swollen lymph nodes and they’re going away. On a basic level, if you want to pray that these swollen lymph nodes are what I very likely believe is that rando harmless infection, I’d love that. But I also thought I’d let you in on how life post-cancer looks sometimes. Most of the time, it’s super normal. But with the first strange symptom, all the potentialities are fair game, and I hate that.

I hate that any time I go in for any symptom of anything, the doctor I see WILL scan me or run the test even if it’s not what they’d do for 95% of their patients; that I will pay out of my deductible every single year without ever quite reaching the “now everything’s covered!” amount because we need to run a test or scan “just to be safe, given your health history.”

I don’t like the shadow of cancer that I genuinely keep at bay most of the time but which occasionally comes back, dredging up all of the past and threatening the present and future. I hate seeming like some wounded animal or vulnerable target, which is what I feel when things like this pop up. And I’m one of the lucky ones, by the way! I am in remission and have graduated from annual oncology checks. I realize that as I write and know how fortunate I am. Though 92% of the time, I’m great, that other 8% of the time—when I find the swollen lymph nodes or have unexplained symptoms elsewhere or watch a show like “Life Sentence”—is a weird and lonely place to inhabit (92/8 feels like the most accurate percentage split, btw. I actually debated what percentage I feel normal most of the time).

I think one of the nodes is shrinking as of today, and that’s good. Viral infection, likely. But man, what a strange and terrible space the intervening times between finding a symptom and waiting for it to wane or get tested can be. By this time next week, the nodes will very likely have gone away and I could’ve just never said anything. But as I’ve seen with most other aspects of cancer survivorship, if I’m feeling it and thinking these thoughts, I’m not the only one. Cancer really does do a number on people.

I try to usually have a point with what I write. Call it the English major and former teacher in me, but it feels meaningless for me to just write on and on with no true thesis or takeaway. Tonight’s point is different, however—just a window into what cancer can do. There’s so much it can’t do, but it sure does haunt and wreak havoc here and there. I’m so grateful for most of the small handful of friends and family I’ve told about these dumb lymph nodes following up with me to see if I’ve actually scheduled an appointment yet, pray with and for me, and just check on me. Especially in that lonely and weird space of not knowing, their follow up is huge.

I guess my point is: cancer patients and survivors out there, you’re not alone. You’re in a really lonely and strange place, but you’re not alone. If you know someone who’s a cancer patient or survivor, check in on them, listen to their concerns about health scares, and let them know when you’ve been praying for them. And to everyone cancer’s done a number on—patient, survivor, caregiver, loved one, bystander—I feel you and I get it. Hang in there. As the “Life Sentence” theme song says, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing; you’ll learn to live again.” You’ll learn to live again, maybe with a shadow and probably with some scars—both seen and unseen. Cancer really does a number on people, but it doesn’t have to have the final word, so keep learning to live again and again.

From Survivor’s Guilt to Stewardship

This past week was brutal at work, as Covid’s impact has had dramatic effects on our ability to fulfill our mission statement that we strengthen schools (something hard to do when schools are all over the place with plans and regulations right now). My company is going to be fine, but with so much uncertainty around school climates right now, we didn’t want to keep playing defense or be behind the curve. On Friday, layoffs and furloughs were announced, and I found myself “safe” and on our core team when many others are not anymore or are being asked to wait it out in furlough for a time.

These people are not bad at their jobs, they haven’t done anything wrong, and they’re not terrible humans; the opposite is true in every case. People who’ve been around for a decade longer than I’ve been with our company; people who’ve trained me—when I first started and even more recently for a new position this May; and people who’ve literally given me keys to their apartments and made me feel like I have community and a home in Southern California were impacted by furloughs or layoffs this week. 

I was talking with my friend Melissa, always a sage counselor and faithful listener, about the situation, and she said, “It sounds like you’re feeling some survivor’s guilt.” No stranger to my walk through cancer, the aftermath, and my ministry pursuits since then, Melissa has heard me share about this concept as a cancer survivor, and her words struck me deeply. I have been feeling that sense of survivor’s guilt with work this week.

If you haven’t heard of it, survivor’s guilt is a phenomenon experienced by those who’ve gone through trauma—from war veterans to survivors of natural disasters and traumatic events, and it’s something many cancer survivors experience.

Here’s what survivor’s guilt has looked like for me as a cancer survivor: for whatever reason—which I’ll probably never know this side of heaven—I’m alive when so many others are not. I didn’t do anything special or more heroic to make it and others didn’t do anything wrong or less brave.

What I’ve learned through cancer survivorship is that survivor’s guilt can leave you stuck, struggling with the “why” question, and focused on so many things you can’t do anything about. It’s a real and fair phenomenon, but, just as I learned in the early years of my cancer survivorship, if I believe that God is sovereign and good and has a plan—even when I can’t understand it or make sense of what’s happening all around me—then I believe I am called to turn that sense of survivor’s guilt into a posture of stewardship.

Survivor’s guilt says it’s not fair that I survived when others didn’t. That’s true, and I feel that—with cancer and with work now. But if I sit in a posture of survivor’s guilt, I’m stuck mourning that hard reality and it’s hard to move on.

Stewardship says because I’m alive, I now need to do something with my life, make my life count. Stewardship can acknowledge the unfairness of my survival, too—it’s not “fair” or “right” that I’m safe at work when others aren’t, but the reality is that I am safe right now. If I sit in a posture of stewardship, then knowing that—for whatever reason—I’m safe right now, I’m going to steward the heck out of that reality and do everything I can to make the opportunity before me count.

The shift from a posture of survivor’s guilt to stewardship came after a conversation with one of my Wheaton graduate school professors in 2013. Dr. Schultz, my Biblical Interpretations professor, and his wife had students over to their house for dessert and conversation a couple different times, so I signed up to drop by on one cold October night. We started talking, and Dr. Schultz shared that he had gone back and read my blog which I started writing when I was diagnosed with cancer during Wheaton undergrad five years earlier. I was honored but also quickly embarrassed because Dr. Schultz translated Hebrews, Isaiah, and many other books of the Bible for the NIV.


I knew there had been human translators and committees, but I never thought about the actual individuals responsible for choosing one word over another and offering up the bound biblical translation all my memory verses had come from all my life.

After I stammered through a response, saying something like, “Oh, wow, that’s so nice and also, you really don’t need to be reading my blog,” Dr. Schultz asked me more about my book which had just come out and how I came to write it. He said something then that has changed my whole perspective on survivorship. He said, “It sounds like you feel a sense of stewardship with your cancer.”

I knew the word “stewardship” as a product of growing up in the church and 18 years of private, Christian education, but I’d always thought of it in terms of stewarding my resources—mostly financial resources, but also my time and talents. I’d never applied the idea to experiences we’ve walked through or the things God has done in our lives. It wasn’t a novel term but rather a novel application of the concept. That moment was profoundly impactful, putting words and clarity around something I’d been feeling for the past five years of cancer survivorship.

Dr. Schultz then shared about how he and his wife lost a daughter due to literal fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in the mid 1980s, and they had experienced that sense of stewardship afterward, wanting to make something of the loss, what they’d learned, and all that God had done in them and shown them through the tragedy.

I’m definitely not doing justice to their story, but I’m so grateful for that night and conversation because it was one of those “lighthouse moments,” shining a path through what had otherwise been a somewhat dark journey through survivorship and survivor’s guilt. What had bordered on feeling guilty at times for the fact that I was alive when so many others weren’t shifted to my feeling a sense of stewardship over the experience.

No longer was it a “for some ‘arbitrary’ reason, I’m alive, so I better do something with my life,” but it became a calling to steward the work God had done and continues to do. If I’m alive, I believe God’s got more in store for me, so I’m going to be a vessel with the time I’ve got, what I often refer to as “bonus time.” People will for sure get tired of hearing me talk about cancer, but I’m stewarding the heck out of what God has done in my life, which means I will keep talking about cancer and the wonders God did and things He’s since taught me until He tells me otherwise or brings me to Him.

Since Friday and the fallout from work, scenes from different movies and stories keep circling my brain as I’m processing all the emotions of this call to a new kind of stewardship in the workplace and with my job. I’ve been thinking of Avengers Endgame because it’s just so perfect anyway, but also because the heroes wade through survivor’s guilt versus stewardship in the first act of the movie. At one point, the character Black Widow says the heroes who survived Thanos’ snap owe it to everyone else who’s not in the room to try and fix things. The song “Seize the Day” from Newsies the Musical also keeps echoing, especially an early lyric where the main characters talk about fighting for their brothers who aren’t there to fight with them. Those feel appropriate as I’m now fired up to fight for our company to return to full strength and fight for those who’ve been laid off or furloughed.

But a scene from the final Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay, Part 2, has been most on that mental loop in my brain. In the scene, Katniss Everdeen starts to list names of people the heroes have lost along the way, people whose lives have been impacted by her quest to take down President Snow. In some cases, Katniss’s actions—borne of good intentions—have directly contributed to their deaths. Her words convey the deep sense of loss she feels as she implicitly wonders what all that loss was for. Peeta Mellark understands her question, answering that all of those deaths remind them that their lives were never theirs to begin with anyway. He adds that if Katniss stops now, the loss of those heroes will have been for nothing. But if she will continue on and finish this thing out, all those deaths and all that loss will mean something.

I realize, in light of cancer and real people losing their jobs this week, a fictional clip of a dystopian young adult series probably feels simultaneously too lighthearted and melodramatic, but I think the reason that scene keeps replaying in my mind’s eye is that it hits on the shift from survivor’s guilt to stewardship. Katniss is overwhelmed with survivor’s guilt in that initial moment in Tigress’s basement, unable to move on and think about next steps. But Peeta challenges and encourages her to steward the fact that she’s alive while others aren’t, making it count and finishing the job ahead of her.

That sounds like a lot of pressure, and it is if you’re a teenage girl trying to topple an authoritarian regime in a dystopian future. In some ways, it could sound like a lot of pressure for anyone feeling survivor’s guilt, thinking stewardship now means they’re responsible to make their lives count and make meaning of others’ loss. But because I know to my core that I am part of a larger Narrative, one in which the God of this universe is sovereign and all-powerful as He writes the story, stewardship doesn’t have to mean a ton of pressure.

Instead, it means living into our calling to steward our lives, our experiences, and our time, money, and talents, too. It means looking at what’s before me, whether it’s fair that I’m still alive or employed or not, and saying, “Okay, Lord, because You have given this to me, I’m going to give my best and do my very best with it.” I’m not responsible for saving anyone or anything because I’m not the Savior, but I serve the God who is, so I’m going to give my best as a vessel, as a steward. The only pressure I really have is the choice to sit in survivor’s guilt or move to stewardship.

If you’re feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt for any circumstance in your life, know that it’s a psychologically recognized phenomenon and fair to be feeling. But I encourage you to think of whatever you’ve been given in terms of stewardship rather than survivor’s guilt.

Let’s not feel pressure to singlehandedly carry the world on our shoulders in response to what we’ve been given—after all, it is for freedom we’ve been set free, healed, employed, and more. But instead let’s recognize with humility that God has—for whatever reason—protected us in some way, and let’s steward the heck out of what He’s given us, done for us, and called us to.

If we sit in survivor’s guilt, the gift of life, continuing employment, and whatever else we’re feeling guilty over can very well be wasted. But if we’ll move from survivor’s guilt to a posture of stewardship, serving as vessels for what God wants to do, we can rest in the fact that nothing—including loss along the way—is wasted in His economy, in the grander Narrative He is telling.

Confident in Hope

Every day, a notification pops up on my iCal at 7:55 a.m. with the names of 5 people to pray for, all cancer patients. Fun fact: it actually pops up on my iPad and my iPhone, but my iPad is half a second ahead of my iPhone, based on how that notification arrives. [Apple, can you look into this?!]

It started with my cousin Ashley’s name a couple years ago, and then I just kept adding to the daily calendar event. The once-“Pray for Ashley” became “and Sabrina” then “and Amy” then “and Ellison” and more; it started showing up on my screen with an ellipsis. If I had faithfully added to it with all those I’ve met and been asked to pray for, there would have been far more than 5 names, but while I didn’t type their names out, I mentally added them to that list and prayer time.

For me, this notification and these names are a daily reminder of the pain people are walking through and the burden of this terrible nemesis called cancer. Of those 5 names, 1 is in remission, and I thank God for that and for Ashley’s life. But now it’s also a daily reminder of the grief those 4 families and loved ones walk through daily, marred by the pain and loss cancer causes. I know there’s a lot going on right now and it can all feel overwhelming. In fact, I told my friend Monica that, if these are not the end times, I for SURE do not want to be around for them (probably not sound eschatology from a double Wheaton grad, I know. But you get the point).

I created this image after hearing about a loss of one of these five names over the weekend, someone who showed me great care and who prayed for me in my cancer battle, whose family is very near and dear to me. Life lived in the tension means my heart is broken again, for my friends and what they’re walking through as well as for the one who passed. I know in my head that’s odd and wrong since he is now healed and whole in the Savior’s presence, not wishing for a moment he were back here. Yet, I’m inclined to grieve for the years he won’t live, for the experiences his family won’t have with him, for what could have been.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it many times to come: life is complex. Grief is complex. Hope is real, and I know that earthly healing and victory over cancer are nothing in light of the eternal healing we have in Christ, yet pain and grief are real, too.

I love Ellie Holcomb, and the lyrics of her song “We’ve Got This Hope” keep coming to mind:

“Even when our hearts are breaking,
Even when our souls are shaking,
Oh, we’ve got this hope.
Even when the tears are falling,
Even when the night is calling,
Oh, we’ve got this hope.”

Lest that sound too rose-colored-glasses and happy-Christianese, it may help to know that Ellie wrote that album amidst her dad’s cancer diagnosis, so there’s nothing trite or trivial in those lyrics. No, they balance the complex reality of our eternal hope and present sorrow in this life lived in the tension. The best songs, the truest ones I put on repeat in the storms of life always do that.

Even when our hearts are breaking and the tears are falling, we’ve got this eternal hope in God. Even when the world feels like it’s imploding, we’ve got this hope in Him. The tears and broken hearts and world’s implosion don’t cease at that truth [though they could—looking at you, Psalm 46], but they’re mitigated in some ways by the reality that we live into our tears and broken hearts and we press on in an imploding world with the reminder Jesus gave: “…in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).

The pain and loss, the racial injustice and systemic issues, the pandemics and chaos are real, yet so is the already-but-not-yet fact that He has overcome the world and is our Hope.

Today, I’m leaving this image here as a reminder, a “speaking myself into believing” anthem which I say and sing out loud to claim, remembering that we WILL see the goodness of the Lord. My confidence isn’t rooted in my own ability to believe that (which is weak and falters) or the things of this world (hello, dumpster fire that is 2020).

I will remain confident of hope because of who GOD is and because of His faithfulness amidst all the storms and chaos and injustices and sicknesses. He is still good, and He is still on His throne.

I’ve been tempted to remove the 4 names who have passed away from my daily notification because new names keep getting mentally added and because the daily reminder of their loss and so many others’ isn’t something I super want to think about daily at 7:55 a.m. But I think it’s something I may need, even though I don’t like it. It reminds me of the good work to be done, the gratitude I have for my healing and the healing of others I know and love, and the reality of living in the tension, something I would like to escape [please reopen, Disneyland], but which I know is a daily reality and calling as a believer.

I will remain confident that I will see the goodness of the Lord because I am called to do so by Jesus Himself, just as I am called to pursue justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God—no matter the dumpster fire of 2020, the loss of another to cancer, or prayers that didn’t end up how I hoped. And each day at 7:55 a.m. when that half-second-separated-double notification arrives, I will live in the tension and trust that He is working and that HE is the hope we’ve got amidst the sorrow of our lived experiences.

11 Years Post-Treatment (and everything’s different but also the same)

Wow, what a time. COVID season has been really interesting, and I wrote on some of what I’ve been processing through the other day and hope to publish it soon, but my first foray back into publishing my work here is on a different subject (though one which may still resonate amidst this strange time of illness, fear, and isolation). My mom just reminded me that today, May 14th, is the anniversary of my finishing chemotherapy. Maybe it’s the COVID craziness of days running together or maybe it’s that enough time has finally passed that every single cancerversary isn’t acutely seared into my consciousness, but it’s almost 5:00 p.m., I’ve been working since 6:00 a.m., and I just now realized the significance of May 14th.

May 14, 2009

I’m inclined to think it’s the former because cancer has actually been on my mind often lately. Still Waters has been at the forefront because of coronavirus, given that our retreat is scheduled for the end of June and our “target audience” is an immunocompromised population. Some would say that’s problematic against a pandemic, so it’s been occupying a lot of mental energy. Beyond that, I’ve had some great conversations with a friend in cancer ministry lately, discussing the heart we have for what we do and for the cancer community to know Jesus, while at the same time finding solidarity together in the fact that the subject matter weighs heavily and has led to burnout in some ways for both of us in the past year. Additionally, this week we learned of the painful loss to cancer of a 13 year old daughter of some family friends and a 4 year old daughter of some of our work family.

To top it off, one of my dearest friends and I talked for two hours on Friday about her cancer diagnosis and the fallout from that. She’s a little over a year out of treatment and a year and a half from her diagnosis—coincidentally, she was diagnosed the same day as I was but 10 years later. I met this friend a couple months after I finished chemotherapy, and her friendship, encouragement, and wisdom were an integral part of my healing process after I finished treatment and processed what the heck had just happened. We talk here and there, comment on each other’s social media often, and see each other when we’re in the same state, but we don’t talk about cancer all that often. When we do, though, everything comes flooding back because I remember being where she is and processing through what she’s feeling and thinking. 

If you’ve ever read any of my blog or my book or know me, you know I’ll bring up cancer—or joke about working in the “cancer card” for effect—and am not shy about the topic. But contrary to what many might think, it’s not always on my mind, and I’m grateful for that. In my call with my friend last Friday, we talked about the long-term effects of cancer, some of which can be physical but for us have been more mental and emotional. I’m so grateful to be able to talk with her and encourage her 11 years from the end of treatment, but I also hate that we have this new thing over which to deepen our friendship. I hate cancer and how it leaves no one untouched; cancer’s fallout is widespread and long-lasting.

Every time I think things have quieted down for a while, cancer pops back up and I’m reminded of my heart for people with and touched by cancer. The past 7 days have been a great example of that phenomenon. I don’t have any sage words or even anything new to add to the topic; I stand by what I wrote in my book and what I’ve written here before. What was true 5 years ago is true today, even if I process things with a different perspective and think about cancer slightly less frequently these days. But this I know and still believe, 11 years from finishing treatment: 

God is still good, life is still complex, and we are still living in the tension between sorrow and hope, between the rest, healing, and wholeness promised to us eternally and the reality that life is hard here on earth. I’m convinced more than ever about this fact, and life is no less complex today than it was 11 years ago—on the contrary, it’s probably more complex now as names get added to the list of those whom cancer has touched, and I know that list will only grow as time moves on.

Today I celebrate being cancer-free—and especially being chemo free because that stuff healed me but was also the worst. And yet, I celebrate cognizant of the reality that I can say “God is good” because I’m here to write about it. Survivor’s guilt (along with PTSD) is a real phenomenon with cancer survivors, and I’ve always been aware of the fact that I get to celebrate cancerversaries like this while others do not. There’s another point for my conviction that life is complex, lived in the tension of celebrating healing while mourning loss.

On the call last Friday, my friend and I were talking about cancer’s impact, about how my friend hoped that by not talking about it too much and with the passage of time, she wouldn’t think about cancer. Yet, she thinks about it often and it haunts her in some ways. We reminisced about how, five months after my treatment ended, I sat with her and she prayed for me to have hope and remember God’s goodness because, having made it through treatment to the other side, I had this haunting sensation that more bad things were in store, as if I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What was my prayer request 10+ years ago has become her challenge now, and as we talked last week, we said how crazy it was that my concerns and prayer request would become her reality years later. She asked me some questions around healing and timelines and moving on, and I told her that I really hated what I was going to tell her and didn’t want to frighten her, but those kinds of things still haunt me in some ways today. They don’t haunt me to the same degree, and time has definitely turned those wounds into scabs and then scars, but we concluded that cancer isn’t really something you ever fully “move on” from.

I have moved forward for sure, and life today looks really normal (outside of running a cancer nonprofit, but that’s of my own volition and calling). But cancer is a paradigm-shifting diagnosis. In some ways it’s expanded my capacity to mourn with those who mourn, to minister to a broken and hurting world, and to use the bonus time I’ve been gifted through no merit of my own more intentionally than before. I can go on, but the point isn’t that cancer has forever haunted and broken me; the point is that cancer has forever impacted me, and I don’t think that’s going away.

With each new diagnosis I hear about, my heart will break and I will remember the terror of hearing the words “biopsy,” “cancer,” or anything else related to what most people fear above all else actually becoming my reality, now knowing what another friend or family is wading through. Cancerversaries like today will come, and it may take me all day to remember that I should have milked the opportunity to celebrate, but celebrate I will (because, hello?!? it’s cancer and that’s allowed. Fight me.). It may feel like strange territory to celebrate healing when so many I’ve known and loved don’t get to do the same, and I think I’ll always be sensitive to that in this complex, living-in-the-tension world we inhabit.

There’s a ton I’ve learned in these 11 years, a ton I believe about God’s goodness and faithfulness deep in my soul, and a ton of questions I may never have answers to. But today I’m thankful amidst so much sorrow to have the undeserved gift of healing, aware of the story I’m called to steward (which is really God’s story of working in my life anyway), and grateful for the healing He’s done in my life since treatment ended 11 years ago.

10 Years of Remission

IMG_7533Wow. Well the title is self-explanatory, and honestly, the picture will surprise exactly no one who even remotely knows me. Still, I have Thoughts. So here goes:

10 years of remission is a BIG deal. Sorry to those who hear me talk about remission and cancer or read my writing here on the subject. But also I’m not that sorry because it’s a BIG freaking deal.

I have lots of conversations in my head, mostly due to the fact that I’m highly indecisive and have the curse of seeing things from many perspectives and sides–though I’m starting to see that as a gift at times. Still, the inner critic or naysayer in me thinks, “Come on, Hannah; people don’t want to hear you banging the drum of cancer over and over again.” Or, the naysayer within argues that I shouldn’t celebrate so many dates or year after year, asking, “But Hannah, don’t you think you’re kind of milking this whole ‘cancerversary’ thing??”

Okay, first of all, naysayer within: CANCER. The Big C. The C Word. Maybe I’m holding on to the cancer card still, but I had cancer, and now I don’t. That’s a big freaking deal. And because of that, I feel like I’m allowed to celebrate multiple dates throughout the year and also year after year due to that simple reality.

But secondly (and more meaningfully): altars. All throughout scripture, God instructs His people to build altars as a way of commemorating the great things He has done. I think the concept of “altars” is important both individually and corporately.

I’ve had Psalm 145:4 framed on my wall across 3 states and at least 5 apartments with the phrase, “My Mission” written below it. It says, “One generation will commend Your works to the next; they will tell of Your mighty acts.” Corporately, I believe that our ministry on earth is to commend God’s works to the next generation–to “go and tell” what God has done to those around us and those who follow us. We may be in the 100th retelling of our stories, of what God has done and is doing in our lives, but for many listeners, it will be the first time they’re hearing those stories.

Individually, the idea of building an altar is a practice critical to my survival, a lifeline of sorts. If remembering these dates–my diagnosis date, my remission date, and my freedom from chemo date–and celebrating them is, at its most basic level, a way for me to remind myself of God’s goodness in my own life, then sign me up for that. Who doesn’t need those reminders?!?

I have many melancholic, pity-party days, days where I start to doubt and think, “When’s it my turn, Lord?!?” when I lose sight of all the amazing things He’s already done and focus instead on what I lack. So I will take any and all of the sobering moments of reflecting on God’s pure goodness and faithfulness via concrete examples in my own life that I can get. I need those reminders to get me through the valleys, the moments between revelation and hope, those “dark night of the soul” moments.

Scripture is also full of people who’ve forgotten God’s amazing work in their own lives–cue Israel in the 40 years of desert wandering or the cycle of sin-judgement-repentance in the era of judges or countless other examples. I forget, too, and I hate that I do; I so don’t want to be Israel, moving from mountaintop experience to grumbling all in a snap, so it’s important to remember.

I love everything about Lauren Daigle’s “Look Up Child” album, and the song “Remember” touches on this idea of altars and remembrance so poignantly. She sings:

“In the darkest hour, when I cannot breathe / Fear is on my chest, the weight of the world on me. / Everything is crashing down, everything I had known / When I wonder if I’m all alone /

I remember, I remember / You have always been faithful to me. / I remember, I remember / Even when my own eyes could not see. / You were there, always there /

I will lift my eyes even in the pain / Above all the lies, I know You can make a way. / I have seen giants fall, I have seen mountains move. / I have seen waters part because of You.”

The chorus repeats, as does the line, “I can’t stop thinking about Your goodness,” which crescendos into a strong and powerful anthem.

Those lyrics, along with so many Psalms, capture what 10 years of remission and “cancerversaries” mean to me: moments to remember that God has always been faithful to me–pre-cancer, during cancer, and post-cancer–and that He is good.

I have seen proverbial mountains move and waters part, and therefore, I will tell of His wonders and continue to celebrate the heck out of the good things He’s done–for the sake of the next generation and especially as a reminder to myself in the fearful, lonely, and doubting days. I choose to remember that He has always been good to me, and so today, I celebrate–once again–the gift of life and of the past decade plus the hope for tomorrow in Him.

The First Decade: Reflections on the last 10 years I only lived because of God’s grace + modern medicine, Part 3

So today is the 10 year mark from the calendar date when I was diagnosed with cancer. What a day that was then, and what a day it is today, ten years later, when one of my closest friends called to tell me she was diagnosed with cancer. Even 10 years later, I can still remember how I felt and what I thought, and talking with this dear friend today broke my heart as I thought about what she’s feeling and facing. Let the record show that I hate cancer for so many reasons.

I ran across an Instagram post this year where a cancer survivor celebrated her birthday as a “bonus birthday.” I loved that idea and have thought about it often in reflecting on the past decade. Since seeing that post, I’ve started to think of all the time since my diagnosis as “bonus time,” or time I wasn’t guaranteed. If we want to go theologically deep, we could talk about how, given that God is sovereign, I don’t think these “bonus years” were a surprise or unplanned. If we want to go medically deep, we could talk about how my lymphoma was much more treatable than other types of cancer (though, if left untreated, I wouldn’t be here today). Still, the feeling that I’ve been given bonus time and lived a decade of that bonus time persists.

Life is not how I planned. I for sure never imagined I’d live in California. (I am a Texan, after all.) My North Dallas roots trained me to think that, by now, I’d be married with multiple kids and a stay-at-home-mom. We don’t even have to talk about how much that’s not my life today. There are definitely times when I grieve the life I thought I’d have, times when I’m tired and lonely and wondering, in the spirit of a certain animated character, “When will my life begin?”

But I had a moment this fall when I realized that, while my life is not what I thought it would be, I’m alive, and that wasn’t a guarantee (nor is it guaranteed on a daily basis, if we’re being real). Instead of thinking of all the things that haven’t happened in my life to this point, I started thinking of all the amazing things that have happened, and especially in the last decade since the “bonus time clock” started. This seeing-the-bright-side-of-things is big for me—others can play Pollyanna’s “Glad Game” much more naturally than my cynical, melancholic self.

So in honor of my decade of bonus time, I started chronicling a list of some of the things I would never have known or done without the gift of this past decade, a decade marked by more risk than the previous 21 years combined. Some of these things are small, and some are much more significant, but all remind me to think of all the things this time God has given me has allowed versus all the things that haven’t come to fruition.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here goes my list of things this decade has entailed, a partial and incomplete list at best.

Without this decade of bonus time, I never would have:

–lived in Hawaii
–found my favorite place on earth, Lanikai Beach
–eaten a Teddy’s burger
–climbed Stairway to Heaven
–met Tariya Enos or watched her become Tariya Mukai and then Mama Mukai
–known any of my HBA or Hawaii ohana
–owned 2 surfboards (neither of which is currently in my possession…?)
–gotten my Master’s Degree
–been to England, Germany, Italy, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Turkey, Brazil, Israel, or Greece
–studied in the Holy Lands
–met Ellie, Emily, Lauren, Sarah, and all of the others on WIHL
–met Grace and Kevin Nielsen and their growing family
–grown to know Jesus more deeply as a result of grad school
–written a book
–started a non-profit
–met all those in the cancer community I’ve gotten to know
–met Aubrea, Krystal, Heather, Tonya, and other friends in San Diego
–met any of my Boosterthon Team/family
–stood by Melissa as she got married or watched her create multiple havens of hospitality while setting up a life in Atlanta
–discovered I actually love running (I thought I hated it)
–been a proud Disneyland Annual Passholder
–seen many of my friends marry and start families
–seen my extended family grow to the next generation
–seen my parents [break my heart first by leaving my childhood home and then] move to Hawaii
–met Patrick and gained a brother
–stood by my little sister as she married the love of her life
–watched my immediate family grow through trials to become even more amazing people of God
–understood God’s grace in a real way
–known the faithfulness of God in all seasons

These are just a start—there’s been so much that’s happened in the past decade that I can’t begin to capture everything. These things represent so many events and people that I never would have known if treatment and God’s provision hadn’t healed me. And when I think about that, I’m immensely grateful because what a loss it would be to have missed out on these friendships and events.

Granted, I wouldn’t have known loss in the way I do today because I wouldn’t have watched loved ones pass away from cancer or slowly realize long term friendships have run their course. Life is complex, and I know that today in a way 21-year-old-me never could have explained.

Life still has many unmet expectations and I know I will continue to be surprised by life in the future, but wow—what a gift these past 10 years of bonus time have been. When I think of all that I wouldn’t have witnessed, I’m humbled and also okay with all of the unmet expectations, all the things that haven’t happened in light of all of the great things God has done and blessed me with in this decade of bonus time.