I went for a walk one sunny winter day during my last semester of college and I wanted to climb a tree.
You see, for about the past year, I had been incredibly sick. I have battled sickness for my whole life, but not like this. My body was spent from years of medications, antibiotics, doctor visits and disappointments. No one had answers for me, and eventually, it seemed that everyone gave up one me. I felt so alone in my suffering. I felt so misunderstood and angry.
But there were rays of hope, and one day, a friend showed up with a few of them. She took me to her own natural doctor who I started seeing two or three times a week. I had stopped taking all my medications and now it was time to start healing. I worked hard and I listened to his instruction. That sunny winter day last year was the first day I wasn’t fighting a fever and chills in a long time. I even had some extra energy for the first time in what felt like an eternity. I walked and I smiled and I listened to the sun melting away the snow and the chirping birds who had decided to stay for the winter.
I stopped to look up at this big oak tree in the distance: bare for the winter but nevertheless robust in its strength, and it beckoned me to climb it. At first, I thought to myself, “How stupid. You can’t climb a tree right now. It’s winter, you’re sick, you’re probably never going to climb a damn tree again. You’ve got to just get through the days right now…climbing trees is childhood fun from the past, that’s all.” And I started walking on. But then, the notion that I couldn’t do it really made me angry and I thought, “No! I want to climb that tree. If tomorrow I might be back in bed, then I can’t waste today. Maybe this is my only chance. I’m climbing that tree.”
So, I climbed over the fence and literally ran down and across the frozen, snow-packed river, and I leapt at that tree. It was perfect, you know. Perfect climbing tree if ever there was one. It was like an immovable ladder to the sky: like Jack’s beanstalk to a magic world. I made my way to the top third of that giant and I felt like I was five years old again with a big, childlike grin frozen on my face. My eyes were wide with amazement as the sun hopped across the land, scattering diamonds in the snow. The sky was pure blue, without a cloud to be seen.
I held onto those dark, wet tree limbs like they were my freedom – and, in a sense, they were. I laughed and took deep, cool breaths of that air that’s higher than everyone else. It was no Pikes Peak but it was the tallest thing in the place. Some cute old man walking by down below even shouted some encouraging line up to me.
And it was up in that tree that I closed my eyes and it came out of nowhere, “Go back to France, Cassie.” Huh? What? What for? “You want to be around people who slow down and enjoy life. You want to be close to people who know what it means to taste and savor their days, people who see beauty clearly. People who, like you, see My Face in the wheat-grass as it chases after the wind, and see My Heart in the ducks’ feet as they swim by in the icy winter water. You’ll find something in France. Go back to France.”
I went home and I tucked the day away and I held onto that dream. I remembered at the beginning of the semester someone had suggested I do a Discipleship Training School (DTS) with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and I realized that I can choose almost anywhere in the world through YWAM. I jumped on my laptop and googled ‘YWAM FRANCE’ and I found three bases. As I read through, I was excited by the options, but when I looked at the website and the school for the base called Bridges of Life in St. Hippolyte Du Fort, I knew it was the one. It was everything that called me in that moment.
An old chateaux nestled into the rocks of a small town in the south of France, and dripping quiet character, I saw home reflected off the screen. The more I read, the more it was clear that this was the right place. It was a place of worship and depth, a place of community and hospitality, a place where the Spirit of God is intimately known and His Father Heart is evident. I immediately took a liking to the leaders, Dudley and Janet, and I trusted that they had grown a place I would align with. I reached out to the school leader, started filling out my application, and set a Skype date with them to find out more.
I’ve never made a faster, easier decision. It was divine and it was such a breath of fresh air after wrestling with all the uncertainties and unknowns of a future that had seemed to be fading far too quickly. I was even blessed with an amazing job for the summer and all the funding I needed for the school. In just a few months’ time, I was accepted, I was graduating college, and I was on my way to France.
It’s been about three weeks since I got home and this morning I was ready. I felt ready to give you my honest best of what I must share about my experience in, essentially, missionary training school.
I’ve not known how to talk about what I was doing. I haven’t known the right way to describe it; the right way to describe why. Instead, I’ve given the easy clichés. I’ve said what you’re supposed to say, I guess, which really isn’t me. So, I want to tell you the truth through this post.
I wasn’t out building houses and water wells. I wasn’t working in orphanages. I wasn’t racing across the globe with a smile on my face and abundant energy to do it with. I was hardly even sharing my faith, to be honest. I didn’t do almost a single thing that I’d expected to do, or hoped to do. But, what I did do was learn. I was learning. That is why they call it a school, after all.
Yes, of course I was doing some of the “normal” missionary stuff: I spent time with strangers, I shared my story with homeless and youth, I worked at schools and played with kids, I took the mic as MC for my team on many occasions, I encouraged and stepped into broken, hurting hearts, I prayed for people, I did my best to serve as often as I could remember, I stayed up with the other leaders late into the night (sometimes even into the morning) to plan for the days ahead.
I certainly wasn’t doing nothing. But I often felt like it. Actually, for much of my life, I’ve felt like I’m losing time, wasting time, not really doing anything worthwhile. And definitely not doing what I dream to be doing. There are times when we are at the “top” and we, for one second, seem to have that something we wanted, but then we see the next peak to reach and suddenly we aren’t satisfied. Suddenly, we look around and realize there’s a lot more, and now we want that too. We don’t even stop to enjoy the victory we just made. And this is the comparison trap, isn’t it? We make a goal, but it will never be enough when we see all the other success stories around us. Everywhere we turn, there’s something, someone, some story better than you, than yours.
I’ve had a hundred – maybe a thousand – mountaintops I’ve made it to in the last handful of years. I have persevered through great trials and inner battles. I have endured the flames and been refined, and I’ve walked out of the fire aglow, radiant with this new strength and dignity and destiny. I have been thrilled, others who have witnessed it have stood in shock and awe, and friends and family have challenged me and climbed to their own peaks right there alongside me.
But I never felt like it was enough. A problem with chronic discontentment or faulty perspective I suppose. I think, in a sense, part of the reason I was going to do a DTS was because I wanted to go back to the basics – back to the beginning. I had felt incredibly burned out, expended, worn down. After four high school years of toxic relationships, depression, anger, abuse, and grief, then the following college years of great betrayal, more abuse, more loss, and increasing illness, and a lifetime of social anxieties and fear – I just wanted to escape. I felt weak and incapable of starting any career. I faced screaming lies that told me I would never make it on my own, and there was no job in this whole world that was right for me.
I was angry, I was bitter, I was doing my best to change my hand of cards. But, even after having come so far and overcoming so much, I still battled this inner restlessness and felt this suffocating grasp over my life and my future.
I wanted so badly to feel truly free. I wanted to be able to give myself generously, in the good kind of way, and not be afraid anymore to reach out to people. I wanted to love others like Jesus. My heart lacked love greatly, and I had been praying for that to change for years. Going to France, doing this DTS, was something born out of hope.
Fast forward three months.
We are at the end of lecture phase: three months of classes, three months of learning about intimacy and vulnerability and relationship, and three months of speakers, teachers, and intense self-reflection. I had spent a lot of time exploring the hills and the city and laughing with these people who I came to know by God’s choosing. I took risks and stepped out into passions and gifts of speaking and leading and encouraging others. But I also deeply wrestled with scars from my past, worked hard to allow festering, hidden wounds to be uncovered, and unknowingly searched desperately for a deep rest.
I struggled during those months to do simple, normal things. We had incredibly easy assignments compared to what I had just handled in college, and yet, I had to get excused from some of them because of this choking feeling that I couldn’t overcome. I had no energy. I couldn’t do anything productive hardly, not even fold my laundry and keep my small space cleaned to my normal organized standards. Cleaning and organizing is something I enjoy: it’s been a non-negotiable for me for many years, but even that was too much. I had felt this rising in me for a long time, but I never expected it to happen like it did. It was exhausting and all I did was sleep, avoid work, eat, walk, or hang out with the team. I couldn’t understand it.
That’s when God started speaking to me about real rest.
God created for six days and on the seventh, He rested. We all know it. But why? He didn’t have to; He chose to. We are created in His image, and I think God was setting an example for us. He was telling us that it is important to rest. Sure, lots of people can go and go and go – and keep going, but the problem with that is it’s not healthy, and what you produce is mostly dry, lackluster crumbs of what you could be creating. Studies show that productivity is highest in people who have cycles of work and rest, on and off, and it declines without them. Maybe God was hinting to us that even the great I Am rests to give us His best.
I started realizing that all that time I had spent feeling spent, all of the excess sleeping, all of the lighter loads I was trying to carry…none of that was actually giving me any rest at all! Every moment I was “resting”, I was going through lists upon lists of things I needed to do, wanted to do, should be doing. I was making plans about how I would work up the strength to do them and when. Or, at very minimum, I was feeling overwhelmed with remorse and anxiety about it all. I wasn’t for one moment just allowing myself to put it all to the side and simply do nothing – and not feel guilty about it! But God started to teach me what it really means to rest.
I still need practice, and even as I write this now, I know I’m still pushing away some restlessness. That’s the thing: we are restless because of a lack of rest. Rest is the counter, the solution, to our endless restlessness. Rest is, ironically, sometimes the only way to move forward. Sometimes we must stop and take a break, stop and do nothing, in order to keep going. And truthfully, every day, and through all the seasons of life, we must frequently choose to stop and rest for a time before going on.
After three months of all that and more, we were packing our bags for outreach and us girls were putting on our nice dresses and doing our hair and make-up for the love feast dinner send-off. One by one they called us up to encourage and edify us as we concluded this time, almost ready to leave for Japan. When it was my turn, I stood up there next to my school leaders wondering what they’d say. Having been asked to be a student leader when one of our staff leaders could no longer join us on outreach, I felt excited and honored. I stood dignified and strong, but I was harboring bitterness and resentment, pride and pain, and I was still sick.
I had been hurt at times during those three months, yes, because living in such close community can do that to you, but I was harboring hatred that ran a lot deeper than any wounds that were still fresh. It was unforgiveness from a lifetime of pain and silence. I was also at the end of another rope, because after all the work I’d done to get healthy, I was unsuccessfully trying to get rid of a horrible sinus infection that had only gotten worse after three harsh rounds of antibiotics and every natural treatment that I could find.
And still, I couldn’t hardly think or see or breathe. The pressure in my head was so bad I daydreamed of decapitation. I was mad at God. What had I done wrong? What had I done to deserve this now too? I had almost 40 straight hours of travel ahead of me, including two very long plane rides, and my sinuses might just burst during takeoff! God reminded me that I had been sick for almost 12 years, and just like the woman who bled for 12 years, my faith carried the promise of healing. I hadn’t come all this way to quit now, and I was making it to Japan no matter what it took.
It took a lot.
It took a nose bleed scare when we ascended on our first flight, it took a million tissues and bruised ribs and pulled muscles and exhaustion. It took friends and family praying for me like crazy people. It took breakdowns in the bathroom and cursing God and crying “I can’t do this!” a hundred times, and thousands of tears just to try and relieve some of the pressure, and more tears because I had no strength left but to cry. It took a night spent not inside the bus station like we’d expected, but outside it in the freezing winter when they closed down. To make it through, a group of us started praising and worshipping God by singing and dancing through the night to try and stay warm and lift our spirits. Despite the pain and exhaustion, I was suddenly laughing and having fun and thanking God for this gift, and then they were opening the doors again and we were going back inside. I got my first hot vending machine green tea from Japan and then we were wheeling our suitcases to the bus that we’d be on for the next six hours.
When we finally made it to our first location in Higashimatsushima, Japan, it was after 7 pm and we were sleep deprived, hungry, delusional, jet-lagged and relieved. We hauled our stuff into the tiny café that we’d (almost) all be sleeping in…and then they sat us down to begin orientation! And after orientation, we were going to the mall to go shopping and then finally get dinner. The team was falling apart. We were all about to collapse, and just when we thought we were done, we had to keep going!? I finally spoke up and said we needed to get back and sleep.
It was time to roll out our sleeping bags and sleep until we couldn’t sleep any more (which, sadly, due to time changes, wasn’t nearly long enough for most of us).
We struggled through the next two weeks, daily having to roll out and roll up our “beds” and repack our stuff for the café to open. We had to clean, cook, and dress in an incredibly small space with only one tiny bathroom. It was tough. But it was here that I met the Japanese Onsen: aka, the public bathhouse. Sounds a bit daunting and unsanitary, right? Wrong. The onsen were one of my top highlights of the whole trip! In fact, nearly every girl on my team loved the bathhouses we went to, and some of our best nights were spent there. In the onsen, you clean off first at shower stations, where you essentially shower as you normally would (though you are usually sitting down in front of a mirror), and rinse off extra well. Then you tie your hair up and hop into any of the baths for however long you wish. Often, they are natural hot spring baths that are quite good for your health, and seriously it is more sanitary than a swimming pool or hot tub in the United States.
One night during our first two weeks in Japan, we met about six or eight Japanese girls around our age at the onsen in town. They spoke very good English and were thrilled to meet us. They wanted to know why we were there and where we were from. These girls were the first Japanese people I got to speak to since arriving who weren’t a part of our planned ministry. I got to connect with strangers from the culture for the first time, and it was amazing!
This particular night, we were at an onsen with an indoor bath and an outdoor bath. It was way too hot inside, but it was only our second time and all the Japanese girls had gone to the outside hot spring (this was before we met them). We thought about going out there, but that would mean walking naked into the freezing cold and awkwardly trying to join them. We decided against it, but then it started snowing! We had to do it now. As soon as we walked out there, we were met with welcoming laughter and smiles – and English! Immediately we all began to talk and joke and ask questions. We even ended up singing Christmas carols out there in the snow in the middle of December in Japan! It was truly a night that I will never forget, and such an unexpected joy.
I started really loving the people of Japan that night.
We thought we’d never make it through those first two weeks, but we did. And looking back, I can see how blessed we were during that time, even though the living conditions were hard. We had people around us, we had translators, we had things to do and planned events. We were taken care of. It was a huge gift to start outreach there. At the end of that time, there were tears when we left and made our way to YWAM Tokyo.
Here we expected something much different than we got. We expected an active base, with people from multiple nations, with events that we would be a part of and plans they would have for our team. But we arrived to find everyone gone for Christmas, except one guy from Fiji (who we totally loved, by the way), and the base leaders who lived downstairs. They welcomed us quickly before basically giving us the next two weeks to ourselves. Living conditions here were the best though, because we had lots of space, a big kitchen, a separate area to relax in with couches, and great bathrooms with all the Japanese technology. But, we had no plans and no translators. We had the base as contacts, but there wasn’t much to take part in.
A few of us did wake up very early in the morning a few times to go out in the frigid and windy air and volunteer at a homeless church that the base was connected with. I had been unable to fully recover still, and while here, I had to stay back semi-often due to extreme exhaustion. I sometimes felt like I could have gone out with the team, but I would get a nudge from God telling me not to. This happened for the two days prior to the homeless church that first Saturday morning, and I knew when I woke up with enough energy to go, that it was the reason God told me to stay back the other days. When we arrived, they asked one of us to share our testimony, and I knew it was supposed to be me. That was a cool morning for me, and it happened to be New Year’s Eve that day too. Unfortunately, I had high expectations for the rest of the day.
We made it home before noon and I got to nap until it was time to cook for New Year’s Eve dinner. Afterwards, we went out into downtown Tokyo for New Year’s ministry. I was not very happy because I wanted to have fun and do something adventurous to celebrate the New Year, but instead we were stuck waiting in line at a temple, and not talking to anyone, let alone celebrating New Year’s in Tokyo in style! I know, missions isn’t about getting to having fun, right? In my opinion, having fun is what makes people attracted to you, and it should absolutely be a part of mission work, or you’ll lose your mind!
Needless to say, I was angry about the fact that we missed out on a lot of adventures (I know, I didn’t have the best attitude about it). After a long and disappointing night, we made our way back to the train station…only to find that the last train for the night had already left. Once again, we were stranded overnight. Luckily, we did find a MacDonald’s to stay in this time and I got a McFlurry and tried to manage some optimism through all the disappointment and exhaustion.
The majority of our time in Tokyo was spent gift-bombing the areas we were in (thanks, Ann Voskamp for the idea: #betheGIFT). We bought candy, wrote Christmas and New Year’s notes, left surprises for people in random places. One of our guys dressed up as Santa and took pictures with kids and handed out lollipops. We had fun doing this during the holiday week, but after the end of the festivities, our good excuse to do those kinds of things faded away. We tried to come up with new ideas. We did everything from performing a dance in public, to dropping by local shops with gifts and flowers, to doing free art/paintings for people in the park. The hope was to draw people to us, pray they’d speak English, and share why we were there and what we believe in. It really didn’t work most of the time. This was the beginning of a long stretch of what, to me, felt like directionless wandering.
We left YWAM Tokyo and went to and Airbnb north of Tokyo, in a small town called Takenotsuka. Overall, it felt a bit like hell.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of stories, plenty of cool moments, plenty of things that happened, but it felt like it would never end. I was living in this horrible purgatory of potential, always seeing the possibility of more, and never able to have it. We spent a lot of time just walking around, desperately trying to find things to do and people to talk with. Everything became so over-spiritualized in our hope to see something happen. To be honest, I’ve never questioned my faith more than I did during that time.
If you ask someone else on my team, they might (and probably will) have a different interpretation, but this is how it was for me. The whole thing is a bit of a blur. I remember what I looked forward to most each day was going to my favorite café during free time to get a coffee with some incredible artwork on top, exploring Tokyo on off days, and stopping in stores to look for souvenirs or buy a Ghana Chocolate Ice Cream Bar (a running favorite amongst the team). I had moments of “outreach”, but many of the days felt purposeless.
There were some silver linings though. During this time, a few of us decided to fast for three days. I had never done fasting for God before, and I felt like it was the perfect time to learn. I also felt like there was a really important reason for it. It was the middle of January, and it was almost exactly 12 years since the beginning of my fight to be healthy. We were reading through the entire New Testament as a group that week, and more than once, I ended up reading the passage about the bleeding woman and the little girl Jesus raised from the dead. God spoke deeply to my heart through those words and those days, and I found clarity and answers and…healing! It wasn’t as much a miracle for others to witness, but I felt this deep, secret, personal healing inside me. That, and the very real healing of the chronic acid reflux problems that started this snowball of sickness way back when I was a kid.
Another one of my better stories from this time was when I got to go with two of the girls to visit an older man who owned a small motorcycle shop in town. He spoke enough English to hold simple conversations, and he was so excited to talk with us. He invited us back to his shop to watch an anime movie with him one night. Because we had nothing going on, we went. He cleared some of the clutter away, pulled out a few folding chairs, and turned on the TV set atop a pile of metal parts. He served us famous Japanese sweet bean cakes: a small pancake-like sandwich filled in the middle with mashed and sweetened red beans. It’s not the best. He also brewed us some tea served in Garfield mugs, the aroma mixing with the heavy smell of gasoline that filled the shop.
It was interesting. The anime movie was three hours long and we had to get up at 4 am the next morning, but I think it meant a lot to him to have us there. We often stopped by to visit him for a few minutes here and there. He would always give us little gifts and we would show up with chocolate for him or some other snack. It was not something I’d have ever imagined doing, but I believe that God wanted to bless the invisible and lonely people in that town. So, in the end, we all can look back and see that maybe from the outside it looks like we didn’t do much, but we can never know how our presence and actions changed the atmosphere or affected the normally overlooked people we took time for. We choose to have faith that we made a difference because we followed God, even in the smallest of ways.
I may have complained and the disappointment may have been constant, but I did leave that country with an absolute love for it: it’s people, it’s culture, it’s potential. I’ve always been fond of Japan, but now I love Japan. I hope that one day I get to go back. The people are so beautifully shy in public but so uniquely quirky at home, so incredibly generous and hospitable, so full of creativity and curiosity, so humble and gentle, but fierce and talented. They do everything with their best. I saw God through these people in a way that just captivated me.
A tangle of trains and a few hours on a plane and we were landing in Taiwan.
Here, they picked us up in a big tour-looking bus and drove us to our apartment. YWAM Taipei promised a whole different experience, as we had a translator and staff member to accompany us almost all the time. We also had a very busy schedule that was pre-planned and arranged just for us, and we had a wildly new culture to explore and experience. This place was chaotic. Much more of what I imagined traditional “outreach” to be. There were scooters all over the road and pretty much no rules for crossing streets or walking down busy roads. There was street food galore, tapioca bubble tea on every corner, and bloody displays of animal parts being sold at crowded and colorful markets jammed down alleyways. It was dirty and loud and nothing like Japan at all. The people were much more forward and, as many Taiwanese spoke good English, they would often come up and ask us questions or just say hi.
Here we worked mostly with schools and youth groups. Probably a hundred times we performed our dramas and the dance that we had prepared during lecture phase. We spent two weeks at a couple of local schools where we planned well over two dozen English classes. Another time, we went to an elementary school and performed, presented, and played games. This day was the most fun for me, as it was hot and sunny and I actually had a blast playing with the kids. It was a true moment of freedom for me, because I have always been the person to stay shyly on the sidelines, not knowing how to talk to kids or to simply play and have fun. But we finally had something to do, and I was so excited by it that I jumped right in and thoroughly enjoyed the day!
Often, I was the MC for our team and introduced our dramas, explained the message we wanted to give through them, announced the events of the day/night, or described the next activity. It was challenging because I always had to know what was going on and often I had to improvise, but I usually enjoyed it and began to step more into my passion for speaking. One night, I even shared a message and part of my testimony at a “party night” hosted by the English Café we volunteered with that the YWAM Taipei base founded. I heard the authority in my own voice as I spoke and it was a wonderful thing to look out and see my whole team with these big, proud eyes as I spoke. It was like, in that moment, they were all truly family, and they knew just how much I’d overcome to stand there and speak.
When it finally became time to leave Taiwan and return to France for our week of debrief, I was nearly jumping off the walls. I was packed and ready to go with a big smile on my face. I couldn’t wait to get back to a real bed, a pillow (which I hadn’t had all of outreach), a clean shower with clean water, a bathroom with a real toilet that you can flush toilet paper in (if you’re lucky enough to have a non-squatting toilet in Taiwan, you still have to have your own toilet paper which you aren’t allowed to flush but have to throw away into the trash next to you…gross, I know), and all my glorious stuff back at the base. I was so sick of the six outfits I had been wearing, I threw most of them out when we left Taiwan! We were ready to go home. A few of us had a good feeling about the trip home and someone even prayed that travel would be redeemed for me through this (as I’d had so many miserable travel experiences already). I believed it was going to be great!
How wrong I was.
We found our seats on our 13-hour flight to Istanbul, and I started shuffling through the movie options. The attendants came quickly with drinks and then our dinner. I had a gluten free meal, so they brought mine out separately and before everyone else got their food. I waited to eat and then nibbled on the salad, bread, rice and meat, and some pink jelly-like dessert. I wasn’t thrilled with the food this time, even though Turkish Airlines usually has really good food. The meat tasted a little strange, so I only ate some of it. The pink thing was kind of weird too but not too bad and I finished that and started a movie. About thirty minutes later I suddenly felt dizzy and a little nauseous. I remember thinking, “Oh no, please don’t let me be sick on an airplane!” As soon as I finished that thought in my head, everything faded and I remember suddenly praying, “Oh my God, be with me.”
Next thing I know, I’m waking up to flight attendants and the teammates nearby anxiously asking, “Are you okay?!” I had fainted in my seat, collapsing onto the guy next to me. I couldn’t figure out what had happened but my whole body was numb and I felt hot and really, really terrible. Jimmy (one of the guys on our team) was behind me and I just remember him saying, “Cassie, it will be okay.” Katie, our nurse, was there and everyone was asking me questions but I couldn’t open my eyes, and when I did I couldn’t hardly see anything.
I was really scared.
I heard some people talk about how bad I looked, and they decided to call for a doctor on the plane. There was a man who worked in ICU previously and he came and I never saw his face, but he had a nice voice and he got me to lay down, which helped the nausea go away a little. They took my blood pressure and blood sugar and tried to get me to drink juice. I lay there with Katie sitting in the crack between the seats and the floor and a few others from my team praying for me.
I started shaking uncontrollably, which seems to happen to me after fainting, and I began pleading with God to take this away and not let me start throwing up on an airplane. I remember hearing them say they thought it was my blood sugar, and that I would be fine if I drank some juice. I was thinking, “Trust me, this is not my blood sugar.” I don’t know how long I was there before I started throwing up, but it did come and it was not pretty. I felt like I was suffocating in between heaves and it just wouldn’t stop. Luckily, I was only throwing up, but I was really throwing up. I don’t know how Katie and Jimmy and Kelsea and Paula stayed with me like they did, but they did. Katie was by my side the entire time, she never left. And she was holding bags for me and taking care of me and she wasn’t afraid to step right into the ugly and downright disgusting that I, myself, would have run from. I don’t know how she did it: how she does it.
At one point, they took me to a bathroom in first class that was big enough for me to sit down in and I was hugging the toilet in there or curled up on the floor crying for hours. To top it off, it was one of the most turbulent flights I’ve ever been on. They came to the bathroom a few times and said we had to go back to our seats, and I remember saying, “No way, I can’t.” Katie pulled me to my feet and nearly tried to carry me and I took three steps and just crumpled back to the floor and crawled back to the bathroom in time for another round of throwing up. I cried to God then that I really couldn’t make it through any more, and that was the last round.
I finally made it back to my seat just in time for landing, and they buckled me in and I went straight over into Katie’s lap. Everything and everyone was a fuzzy blue, and the lights over my head were like fluorescent torture. The whole flight, I couldn’t really see much. I heard some of what was going on but mainly I remember pleading at first with God, and then screaming at Him in my head. We had prayed for a blessing! We prayed for God to bless us while we traveled just because He loves us. We prayed that we’d maybe even get bumped to first class. I thought, “So this is how you send me to first class?!?”
When we finally landed in Istanbul, they had to call for a wheelchair to take me off the plane and into the airport. They called for a doctor to come meet us, and some construction-worker-looking Turkish man shows up with a 20-or-30-something male nurse. They were rude and I could sense the difference between men and women in their culture. They poked my arm and gave me a shot of medicine and told me to drink fluids and take this fever pill. I remember my team made up a little bed for me on the floor there and I crawled in and tried to sleep, but my back and sides and body hurt so much. I heard some of the girls crying and I knew there were a lot of trials going on.
Then they asked me to get up because we were going to a better waiting area. Because we had a 9-hour layover, we couldn’t go to our gate for a long time still. We found some chairs and I was down right away while my friends were trying to see if I needed anything. They got me multiple things to drink: a smoothie, juice, water. But I still couldn’t take more than a sip or two. After a few hours, some airport workers would come and kick everyone out of that area and make us move somewhere else. It was miserable. We had to do that three or four times, maybe more, I can’t remember. Finally, it was almost time to board.
We got on the plane, and I had a seat in the back with Léa, who had stayed with me for the entire layover. I finally ate a few bites of a banana and had some lemon-mint sparkling water, and that finally started to make things better. But I was beyond exhausted and scared of to be on another flight and I broke a fever again after the first hour in the air. Luckily, the flight attendants were more nurturing, and they got me an empty row to lay down in, put a stack of those little airplane pillows and some blankets down and got me cold towels to put on my head and chest and arms. I was able to sleep a little like that and the rest of the flight went faster because of it.
They got another wheelchair for me when we landed in France at the Marseille airport, and I got to skip all the lines and immigration stuff as they wheeled me right through to the front. We got our baggage and then we met Sam, our school leader, who was waiting for us at the airport. He was shocked to see me in a wheelchair and when we told him what had happened. He bought me some water and rice cakes and I was finally able to eat and drink. The ride home was about three more hours, but I finally felt a lot better. The other girls in the back seat of the van were at their ends. As I looked back, there were tears and tired eyes, hands holding hands, and heads in laps. I loved those girls. Such strong, brave, sacrificing women.
When we finally pulled up to the chateaux, it looked like an oasis in the desert. It was around seven or eight at night and, as we started emptying the vans of all our bags, the base staff started pouring out to welcome us home. I just wanted to go to bed and not see anyone, but it felt surprisingly good to hug everyone and see their faces. These were people who really cared about me and people I cared for in return. I quickly got my bags and hauled them up to the room, found my bunk, sent some texts saying I’d made it, and crashed. I was out. The bed felt so big after the tiny mattresses and floor pads we’d been on, and the big European pillow was like a taste of heaven after three months of using crumpled up t-shirts. We even had fresh, clean sheets and a thick down comforter.
I have never been more grateful for hospitality and linens in my life.
Somehow, that first day I managed to have a pretty great attitude. I guess I was just so happy to be back and be over the sickness that I didn’t realize I was still so mad at God. The next day I called my mom, and that anger rose up again when she made a comment about how lucky I was to have had food poisoning and only been throwing up. I was not ready to agree at that point. I started accusing God of being a liar, of how I didn’t believe He was good anymore, of how it was the end and none of what He’d promised me had happened. The jet-lag and the exhaustion of all my body had just been through hit me hard that afternoon and I fell into a feverish sleep after lunch.
The next morning, they asked us personal debrief questions, and since I’m the kind of person who is overly self-aware, I didn’t struggle to start scribbling down my thoughts. As I started writing about what I thought would happen and what really happened, it suddenly dawned on me like the moment the sun actually breaks over the horizon.
I wrote: “I thought I’d step out of so many chains and let go of the fear of man. I thought I would lead and serve well. I wanted to change my focus to be outward and not inward. I hoped to love people and not hate them. I wanted to shine and break free and live for others…love others…I wanted to really feel love again, or for the first time, God! But what really happened was absolutely nothing I thought would happen…but instead this mess of ugly and beauty, shame and glory, craziness and purity, darkness and faith. What actually happened was I LEARNED HOW TO BE LOVED, AND BECAUSE OF THAT, I LEARNED HOW TO LOVE IN RETURN!!! So that is what you were doing this whole time, God?! Your promises, then, really have been fulfilled, but in a way I never could have imagined.”
How is it that God can take the worst circumstances, even after your time has ended and you thought there was no way He could possibly deliver on His promises, and somehow, in a moments time, show you that He did all He said He’d do and more?
“What happened,” I wrote, “was GREAT GRACE. Great grace and great mercy and great beginnings and great chances and great endings and great new days and a great new family.” I never knew love like what I had experienced there. And as I kept processing, I saw that, yes, I may be an imperfect, flawed, broken, hurting, selfish, scared mess sometimes…but I am also loved and lovable – in the midst of all that, despite of all that! I penned the words fast and dark: “I am enough! Just like this. Just as I am. I am worthy of love and I really, actually am loved!”
You see, I thought I was going away to love others and serve them and do good in this world. But what happened was, in a sense, totally the opposite. I went away to be loved by others and served by them and to feel the good in this world that they offered to me. I went away to find home in this unexpected family and find out that I am worth loving once all the masks and all the façades and all the walls were stripped away, and in my eyes, I’m just this pile of ugly and selfish and unlovable.
But instead of leaving me, they turned toward me and stepped in close and held my heart and didn’t blink an eye at all that stuff that made me so worthless and terrified and tarnished. When I thought that my core had revealed a dark and broken truth that I could never be fixed, I could never be pure, I could never be lovely – these people told me that, even when looking at the same broken thing, what they saw was not what I saw. They saw someone beautiful and kind, someone strong and inspiring, someone worth loving and capable of choosing and feeling love in return. They saw a person with a profound, inherent, God-given value that could never be changed, regardless of what they found. They really saw me, and they loved me!
I guess God knew that the only way I could ever believe I was lovable, the only way I could receive His love, was to be showered with it, broken by it, and forced to receive it, at my very worst: when I truly didn’t deserve it one bit. Because that’s the whole point: we don’t deserve it, but God said we’re worth it.
I had a lot of love for others as a little girl, but cruelty stripped it away and replaced it with coldness, numbness. My heart has always been big, but it dried up a long time ago — and for the past few years, I had been trying desperately to conjure up a love that only God can give. A wise man I know always says, “You can’t give away what you don’t have.” God knew that to answer my prayers of loving others, I first had to open my heart to receive love first.
And when the last official day came and we had our final dinner together, I looked around at all the faces of these people I so deeply adored, often so harshly judged, and other times so genuinely loved — and I knew I had been given a great gift through this family.
The next night a bunch of us stood out in the courtyard in the middle of the chateaux, and someone had Ed Sheeran playing while a few of them ballroom danced with one another one last time (it had been a bit of a tradition during our school). Two of the girls I had grown closest to were sitting with me watching and drinking wine. We were just soaking in the music and the peace and the emotion. Some of the base staff showed up, people we really came to care for, and we talked and hugged and cried and said good-night. One by one, everyone went to bed, but the three of us stayed up. Caroline, our British mother, came out and was trying not to cry while she talked with her favorite French girl about tomorrow’s goodbye.
Meanwhile, Sophie, the other friend I loved so much got up and stood in the center of the courtyard looking up at the stars in the dark, with tears running down her face. She looked so full of grace and strength and love. I got up and hugged her for a long time, which is something I don’t normally do. I’ve always struggled with physical touch, never being able to let friends or family too close to me, and certainly not able to reach out my own hands to them. But the deep well of emotion in her, something I hadn’t known was there, was paired with this beautiful, vulnerable composure, and it drew me into a safe place to let go.
It was a huge thing for me to go and hug someone like that though, and because she knew it, tears poured from her beautiful dark brown eyes like love spilled out on God’s own wooden cross. We started to exchange the most heartfelt words of affirmation and love, and she said she had something for me as she pulled off a thin, rose-gold bracelet from her own wrist: “Her favorite bracelet?!?” I immediately burst into tears as she took my wrist and put her bracelet on me. With tears, she went on: “It says, ‘I always believe in you,’ and I want you to have it because I’ve never believed in someone more than I believe in you, you know how much I love this bracelet and I know how much gifts mean to you.”
I came undone in that moment.
I’ve never felt more loved in my entire life, and I felt like I simply couldn’t hold together. But that feeling of coming undone is surprisingly sacred and safe when you come undone in the arms of love. Caroline came up to us at that moment and wrapped her arms around us and really, it was like something from a movie.
Caroline left and Léa, Sophie, and I went into the little prayer room on the base and cried for another two hours. We spent the night cuddled up on the couch under some blankets, just crying and each telling the other two how much we love them, how incredible they are, and how much we’ll miss them. I’ve never had a time like that before. I’ve never felt the loss of leaving someone I truly loved until then. When we all got up to leave the next morning, we cried some more, hugged some more, and I felt this deep sorrow in my heart as my DTS family went off to their corners of the world.
I rolled away in a car early in the morning on my way to Italy for a vacation with my parents, and I had a smile on my face even though my heart hurt with grief. This glorious smile coexisted next to that pain because, for the first time, I knew what it was like to really miss people: to really, deeply feel and love and be loved. To miss and be missed. I have had plenty of people in my life worthy of these feelings, but I had never been able to let real love in deep enough to penetrate the calloused heart of stone in my chest. God has been chipping it away for a long time, but it was there that it finally cracked through to reveal that heart of flesh that I’ve longed for.
was my DTS anything like I had hoped or dreamed or expected? Not in the slightest. It was by far, exceedingly, infinitely, abundantly better than I could have ever asked or imagined. Because that is always, and will always, be the God that I serve and the God that I know.