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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Reflections & Chemo Journey

Here we are, two days before Christmas as I post this, and my soul is flooded with wonder at all of the mercies and miracles of God this year...I continue to reflect on our journey, picking up from where I last left off writing...I also reflect on the wonder of the greatest miracle of all- the Christ Child, who came to give hope and healing, salvation and sight to the world! 


"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone."
Isaiah 9:2


It was the second week of July, just 10 weeks away from our wedding...Jamie and I were staring into the scary face of 9 weeks of chemotherapy treatment.  His new oncologist rushed the orders and had the infusion center at Johns Hopkins squeeze him into a spot that next Monday so Jamie could start treatment, in order to allow him to finish before the wedding if all went accordingly!  We were crammed into a corner of a chemo pod next to another couple, Tom and Susan…It was Tom’s first day, too.  Jamie and I quietly bowed our heads and prayed for God’s blessing on this first day of the infusion.  They looked at us with twinkles in their eyes and asked if we were believers.  "Yes!"  Tom turned out to be a pastor of a thriving church in Maryland, Hope Bible Church, and they became our first close friends on the 9 week long journey.  Jamie’s nurse, Liam, was a God-send as well.  What do you know- his other job just happened to be pastoring a church also!  He ministered to both Jamie’s and my needs every day- physical, spiritual, and emotional needs...Just the look on Liam's face would set us at ease or make us laugh.  We believed with all our hearts that we were given the very best nursing team for Jamie's treatment, just as we were blessed with the best team for my surgery and recovery!


Other friends we made along the way at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer center downtown Baltimore were incredible.  Linda and Dan, Rhonda and John, and re-uniting with my longtime friend Kaley and her husband John.  These friendships have been a tight bond for us- not just a bond because of the common cancer journey, but a bond in Christ, a bond of faith that has carried us all…I felt the Holy Spirit's presence so strongly on many days in the infusion center.  Not only were they being infused with medicines to kill cancer, but there was an infusion of the power of God happening, an infusion of hope and joy being spread around!  As painful as it was to see my Jamie weak and in so much discomfort, (as he is ordinarily such a strong person who can handle anything with ease) it was such an extraordinary honor being by his side, as he was by my side the many months prior…And in those weakest moments, I saw a strength like no other.  It was the strength of God in him.  

"But He said to me,
"My grace is sufficient for you,
for My power is made perfect in weakness."
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,
so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses,
insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.
For when I am weak, then I am strong."
2 Corinthians 12:9-10


Jamie had one week of hospitalization where he spiked a dangerous fever and became “neutropenic” with a ridiculously low white-blood cell count and neutrophil count (the very important cells that kick bacteria and protect against infection).  He was basically isolated at that time, and boy was he relieved when he could be free again!  The afternoon he was released from the hospital was the same day that I first sang again in public after surgery.  It was bitter-sweet, a holy moment that morning, filled with mourning and joy.  I sang my song “Broken Vessel” for my dear friend Nancy’s funeral service who went home to be with Jesus after a several-year long battle with brain cancer.  She beat all odds and truly was a walking miracle during her final years.  Nancy was one of the exceptional gifts God put in our lives this past year to help keep us going.  She was a strong rock of faith and stream of continuous joy.  When she finished her race, we celebrated her life.  


God’s grace and continual miracles kept us on schedule so we could finish out chemo before our wedding- Jamie’s final treatment just 5 days before our big day!  After 9 intense weeks of being beaten-up, the treatment effectively destroyed the cancer, but along with it, took the hair from Jamie's head and the pep from his step.  September 12 came before we knew it, and my man had remarkable stamina to stand and say his marriage vows!  We had the most beautiful, magical Maine day as we committed our lives to one another in a New England pine grove just blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.  We danced and dined and celebrated inside a historic camp church building built in the late 1800s.  It was home-spun, intimate, and my fairytale had finally come true!  It felt like Jane Austen meets Little Women meets old-fashioned seaside town.  It was our special day, and the most beautiful thing about it was the story God had written which we never in a lifetime would have imagined...a story of love and adventure, of pain and of glory.  Over a dozen flower girls with woodland crowns in their hair and little chaps with suspenders and bowties ran around with blue ice cream on their lips and streamer twirlers in hand.


Yes, it was a beautiful day and looked “picture-perfect” (minus how pale the bride and groom were after being inside the hospital all summer instead of at the beach!).  However, I came to realize, with all the wedding magazines and the pressure of our culture to create that fairytale show on your wedding day, that the image of that one particular day going perfectly as planned is not what matters- what matters is truly building a marriage founded on God’s eternal, sacrificial love and committing for better or for worse.  Life is not picture-perfect.  Our journey getting to that day was messy.  A beautiful mess, we like to call it.  We walked through sickness and we are entering back into health.  Our plans were thwarted time and again.  Stress was high at moments this year and our physical limitations very real.  Our dependency on one another and others was constant.  Our wedding day was a celebration of two lives becoming one, two stories becoming one, two souls set on course together to serve God and bring out the best gifts we each have to offer for His Kingdom.  I hope and believe our wedding day was a picture of Christ and the church, of laying our lives down for one another, serving each other, and committing to one another for a lifetime.  It was the culmination of a year that was a whirlwind of adventure.  It was the beginning of a life-long journey where now two best friends get to “do life” together every day and tackle the hard stuff not alone, but with each other.  It was the beginning of learning to love and serve in new and profound ways,  walking hand-in-hand while living for the Lord as one.


Our road has been unique, and though I never would have chosen this road and it's obstacles- not the brain tumor, the cancer, nor any of the pain...looking back, I wouldn’t change anything.  It has brought our faith to the front and center of our lives.  It has swept away so many of the “lesser things” life has to offer and turned our hearts to be set on the greater realities of God.  It has caused us to go to the throne daily, morning and night, in prayer.  We can’t live without communing with God.  It is more important than food or water.  It has challenged us to be more bold in proclaiming Him, Christ as central to our lives.  It has made me to see my music ministry and career in a whole new light, and has transformed my dreams to take on a deeper eternal perspective- that of offering the world the mystery and glory of Christ, instead of going after the glory and glitz this world has to offer.  


Yes, the course of my life, our lives, has changed, even if it be so subtly, but when the course is changed even one bit of an angle, the destination is quite different.  I thank God for the painful trials and the physical suffering He allowed, to make me even more grateful for the gift of life and to have a more profound understanding and compassion for those who suffer.  I thank God for bringing such a godly, strong, steadfast man into my life who never gives up hope and who always knows how to turn my tears into laughter.  I thank God for allowing me a long pause in music and in the day-to-day normalcy of life to offer a different glance at things and begin anew singing and creating all over again, this time with hopefully a more authentic message and even more Christ-centered heart.  Scripture tells us over and over again to never forget, to remember,  all that God has done.  One of the passages with that challenge is Proverbs 3:1-8:

 “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart,
for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity.
Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart…
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.” 


This Christmas, I challenge you to remember all God has done in your life, whether it was an ordinary year, an extraordinary year, the most tumultuous year of pain and trial, or the most beautiful year of blessings...Remember the journey.  If you are missing loved ones, take time to mourn and miss them and remember all that their lives have meant to you.  If you look back and feel the pain of regret or failure or misdirection this past year, look as well at how God has not abandoned you through it all, and take heart, for He holds promise for this new year.  If you are facing uncertainty and unknown fears for the year ahead, leap into trusting your Heavenly Father like never before. 

 I pray the richest blessings over you...
Blessings of faith, hope, and love.  
Blessings of life abundant in Christ. 



Thursday, December 10, 2015

TWO SURPRISES! Proposal & Cancer...



It's astonishing in life how one of the most momentous, joyous occasions could simultaneously happen at the same time as one of the most heart-wrenching, painful occasions.  I was two months into my recovery after brain surgery and hoping to get back to some "normalcy"...little was I prepared  for the two surprises about to come to me!  One surprise would be the best thing to happen in my entire life.  The other would be absolutely crushing and would challenge my faith in an even greater capacity, though my faith felt pretty "maxed-out" after the journey I had already experienced.  Both would have to do with the amazing man God had put into my life this past year...a man my heart was growing in love with more and more every day.


The next month was April and my family saw slow but great improvement in my health.  I could tell by subtle hints from Jamie that he was patiently waiting for me to recover so he could propose.  However, I couldn’t imagine when he had any time to get a ring or a moment alone with my parents to ask for their blessing.  Unbeknownst to me, he did talk with them one very early Sunday morning when he was visiting!  The following Friday he ordered a custom-designed ring setting for the diamond that was passed down from my beloved Grannie.  I was clueless- I thought maybe in a few weeks or months this would all happen…but had no idea that he was planning all of this at that time!  He visited that same weekend he had secretly ordered the ring and we had a beautiful walk together in one of my favorite parks.  It was peaceful and I was beginning to get glimpses of what everyday life could feel like once I recovered.

 

Monday was a day that would shock us all, though, and the next turn of events were about to change our lives and challenge our faith yet once again.  Jamie went to the doctor to find out news we never would have imagined- he had what they thought to be a cancerous tumor and before we knew it, he was scheduled for surgery that Wednesday, April 22!  I remember receiving the call from Jamie and the shock setting in.  Here I was still recuperating myself and hadn’t even left my house yet, except to get my staples removed and to go for mini walks with Jamie or my parents.  My first real outing wouldn’t be to visit friends or go to church or the store- it would be to the hospital- this time not for me but for the one I love.  My strong and supportive parents rushed me down to Virginia to be there for his surgery and recovery.  I remember shedding a tear or two the night before his surgery, and really for the first time feeling that, “Why God?” feeling…but I couldn’t let despair set in!  I just couldn’t!  I had to have faith and trust in the goodness of the Lord.  God was so much bigger than all of this and I knew my Jamie was held in His hands.  The Lord had been faithful thus far in our lives- He was worthy of all our trust.



We spent some time in Virginia for his recovery and he came to Delaware to my parents’ home (which we began to call “The Rehab Center”) for the remainder of his recovery.  Back to Virginia we traveled for follow-up oncology appointments.   We were quite a pair, both crippled in our recoveries and both laughing and falling more in love, trying to take care of one another, with the help of countless family and friends.  On Wednesday, May 13, Jamie came in the morning to pick me up from his friends’ home where I was staying.  He said, “Let’s take a walk before my appointment today.”  Nothing out of the ordinary for us, since other activities were too strenuous, but we could limp along a trail hand-in-hand and enjoy God’s creation.  He took me to a park on the Potomac River and before I knew it, he turned me around and he was on one knee!  I was speechless between my squeals of surprise and elation!  How in the world did he have time to do all this?  My surgery, his surgery, the shock of cancer, everything!  Of course I said YES!!!  It was absolutely incredible, the happiest moment ever and the most unbelievable surprise! 




We began planning our wedding, not letting the obstacles of life keep us from moving forward and living our lives.  One doctor was set on starting chemo right away.  We went to Johns Hopkins for a second opinion, and the specialist there told us there was no need to rush into chemo with a 50/50 chance that surgery kicked all the cancer, so we chose to wait and scan and plan our lives holding fast to faith in God’s sovereignty.  Our wedding date was set for September 12 in Maine, where my happiest childhood memories took place along the coast with family.  The second week of July, we found out that his blood work came back showing the cancer was not gone.  It was crushing news, but once again we had to look to God for all the strength and hope we needed to start the course ahead of us.  It was 10 short weeks until our wedding day and chemo would be 9 weeks long.  His oncologist encouraged us to postpone our wedding, but Jamie was determined to not let cancer dictate our lives- we would go on living and we would be married!

 


Although our hearts were filled with disappointment knowing the road before us would be much more difficult than we had asked and prayed for… we looked back with thanks at the beautiful summer we shared and at God’s perfect timing once again.  Had he started chemo earlier, Jamie would not have been able to travel to Maine for my dear cousin Bridget's wedding and spend time up there planning our own wedding, nor would he have been able to go to Aruba to officiate one of his best friend’s weddings.  God knew that these were moments that were so very special and He allowed him to miss not one of them!  We look back and treasure all the beautiful blessings of those several weeks leading up to chemo.


As I sit and write, recalling the twists and turns and surprises and shocks along with the tears of joy and tears of pain...Mat Kearney's song lyrics from "Closer to Love" come to mind...Through it all, my heart was continually pulled closer to love- the never-ending, all-encompassing love of God that is in Christ Jesus, as well as the steadfast, faithful love of a man named Jamie whose heart is that of a warrior's and whose vision for life and faith has carried me when my eyes and heart have been too weak to see through the fire.


She got the call today
One out of the gray
And when the smoke cleared
It took her breath away

She said she didn't believe
It could happen to me
I guess we're all one phone call from our knees
We're gonna get there soon

If every building falls
And all the stars fade
We'll still be singin' this song
The one they can't take away

I'm gonna get there soon,
She's gonna be there too
Cryin' in her room
Prayin' Lord, come through
We're gonna get there soon

Oh it's your light,
Oh it's your way,
Pull me out of the dark
Just to show me the way
Cryin' out now
From so far away...
You pull me closer to love
Closer to love...

'Cause you are all that I've waited for
All of my life (We're gonna get there)
You are all that I've waited for
All of my life
You pull me closer to love
Closer to love...
("Closer to Love" lyrics by Mat Kearney)