Saturday, February 21, 2015


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Friday, February 13, 2015

IF: a story of listening, hoping, and watching

i've been trying to write about IF:Gathering for a week... part of my problem could be the 'brain fog' effects of chemo (seriously- i think part of my brain dissolves each week), and part is probably the scope of this topic.  i have not yet explained it well out loud, and this is my 9th attempt at writing about it.  i'm resigned to the fact that this will be 2 posts, and neither may be clear or worth reading... but sometimes you've just got to get the words out of your head before you explode.

at its core, the IF:Gathering is simple:  IF God is real, then what?  
should our lives look different based on what we believe?  
yes- IF God is real, then we want more than anything to live like it. 
is this radical? new, innovative, and provocative?
nope.  not new at all, really- every generation gets a fresh wind, an opportunity to revisit their faith and examine their lives.  do my every day actions match up with what i believe God is asking of me? how am i supposed to live out God's purpose for me in my place?
and the answers are not new, either.  
Gather together to build relationships and seek God together.  
Equip each other with prayer and scripture.  
Unleash our God-given potential by partnering with others who are already helping, uplifting, feeding, educating, and healing people in our nation and around the world.
these are not new concepts.  this isn't a fad that will look dated in a few years, unable to adapt to the next generations of spiritual seekers- it's actually a continuation of what has been true in the church all along, though we sometimes forget.  the details of how we gather will change and adapt, but the heart of gathering, praying, reading, and helping is timeless.
the best part about IF is that it isn't about gathering under their banner and uniting women to follow these leaders as they create a new way.  it's the same Banner... the same Way. 
even the brand is a reminder of the purpose: IF i believe God exists, how can i live like it?  here. today. in my place, with my people, my resources, my limitations- i have a God-given purpose here, and i want to live it faithfully.

i had a ticket to the first IF:Gathering in Austin, but our cross-country move and the timing of Matt's examination by our new presbytery made it unwise for me to attend in 2014. i watched the digital downloads while unpacking boxes and re-arranging furniture, occasionally dashing over to my notebook to write something down.  i wanted to share it with my new friends here, but i also hesitated to add another 'good thing' to an already strong women's ministry.  women are gathering together for prayer and Bible study, they are caring for each other and their neighbors, they are seeking to live the Gospel in every day ways... would another 'thing' be just an added stress?  i put it in my calendar to talk to our women's ministry director in September, just to offer the resource, but i knew it might not be the right time. September came, and i was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I didn't make any plans for February.  i didn't make anymore plans at all... i tend to curl up and hide when i'm hurt, preferring to deal with pain privately (which is a whole other topic), so IF was not at all on my radar.

i kept up with the IF:Equip Bible studies on my own, continued getting the emails about IF:Table, saw the excitement build for IF:Pray and IF:Local gatherings...  and i was a little sad that i was on the outside.  here is this resource to uplift and encourage and create community for women, and it's passing us by.  

but God... right? isn't that always His way?  sometime around Thanksgiving,  halfway through chemo and unable to get out of bed, i knew i wasn't supposed to hide from this opportunity.  why watch the IF:Gathering alone when my couch could hold 4? and isn't there room for a few chairs across the room- could 8 people fit in that space?  i felt that desire to gather women, to grow in unity, to pursue healing and freedom together.  there was a corner of fear in my heart to even ask... i've been hiding away from them, why would they want to come here?  especially now, knowing how little i have to offer?

they said yes.  and i began dreaming that i would be well enough to create an environment of welcome, a beautiful space for connection to each other and to God. i had days when i felt energetic and creative, and i used those times to pull out the hot glue and dig through recipes i longed to eat.  even that week, the first of february, i had a little window of improvement- off to the grocery for ingredients!  i was thrilled to hang curtains in our family room, place some candles, prepare some little surprises for my friends...

then february 6 arrived... bitterly cold (-7 degrees at sunrise) and spitting snow on top of the 16+ inches already accumulated.

from my kitchen sink, i could see the snow half swallowing the tree trunks... deep footprints in the snow where Spike, our neighbors' awesome black horse  dog took his morning walk. 

i tried to think of their names- the 8 women who would be coming over that evening expecting... what? i'm not sure i ever adequately explained what we were doing, so maybe they didn't even know what they had said yes to!
i tried to drag my mind back to their names- their faces- their stories.  i know these little pieces of their lives, fragments of pain and fear and questions. i have glimpses of their joys and what makes them come alive, but there is so much more that makes them whole. so much more story inside each of them.

i wanted to pray hopefully and expectantly for our time together, but my mind was cloudy.  my heart was racing too fast, skipping beats, making me dizzy.  this last round of chemo dealt a late, low blow... i couldn't get my body under control no matter how much medication i took.  i was unable to hydrate, unable to hold nutrients in my already weak body.  i couldn't even stand long enough to cook the meals i had planned.  and while the food would be prepared by loving hands and the messes whisked away from my sight (thank you matt, bailey, jessie, ty, and brian), i felt defeated. would i be able to share in this gathering with my friends, or would i be too sick to even be in the room?  
instead of praying for my friends, i just cried: 
i thought i was supposed to do this, Lord. You asked me to do this.  
why am i falling apart now?

then the assurance came: no matter what, this weekend is not about what you do.  it is about what I am doing in each of their hearts- for them, for their gain, for My glory.  you are already done.  you invited them, you set the stage for Me to speak, and now you get to watch Me... just watch.

 (Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill His Promises to her. Luke 1:45)

so that is what i did.  

i couldn't stand at the stove to cook, so i sat in the chair and pointed to where my utensils are found and i listened and laughed while they did the work.

i couldn't sing loud to overcome the potential awkwardness of small group worship, so i whispered the words, worshipped in my heart, and smiled at the beauty of the voices around me- beautiful hearts singing to their Creator.

i couldn't eat the food i had been craving and planning, but i watched the women i love enjoying fellowship around the table and was thankful for applesauce and bone broth and the healing of my body.

i couldn't know ahead of time all that God was planning to do in our hearts- 9 women, 1 small room, 1000 little ways of changing us and moving us forward in faith- but i watched their faces. i saw the tears. i saw the words written and underlined. i listened to them question aloud and heard unspoken fear and conviction...  

here is a taste of what God gave us...

"it is not about us- not the measure of our faith. God has already measured up on our behalf."  -jennie allen

"do not stop valuing the gifts God gave you because they don't look like the gifts you value."  (paraphrase) -angie smith

"revival resuscitates believers first- it begins in us."
"the fullness of you gives back, extends grace, gives a lift because Jesus' fullness is the brightest part of you."  -rebekah lyons

"when you believe someone, eventually you start believing what they say about you."
"don't wait until you have full knowledge of God to take full possession of Him."
"faith doesn't erase doubt and insecurity, it just overcomes them." 
- jen hatmaker

"our repentance is the scent of our love." - ann voskamp

"you cannot live in the past and lay hold of the future- let go of what is dead and move on."  - christine caine

"pay attention to the depression, the sadness, the numbness.  these are signs that something is seriously wrong."
"women are the greatest untapped resource in the world." - lynne hybels

"God is who He says He is, so let's take steps of faith."  - esther havens

and so much more... i'm still grasping for the confidence to believe what God told me, how to take my faith step.
i am just thankful to have been in the room.

my biggest regret is that my couch only holds this many... there are honestly 100+ women i wanted to gather with this weekend.  if not for the chemo, i would have tried!  
but know this: February 5-6  2016, IF:Simsbury... you're invited.  i'll get a bigger couch.  
you can purchase the digital download of the IF:Gathering HERE.  
it's worth it, i promise!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

sleepless things written well before sunrise

3:34 a.m.
it's very still at this time of morning... no sound, just the occasional hum and exhale of the radiators combatting the 10 degree air seeping in through invisible cracks. sometimes the old farmhouse walls creak and settle, the sounds of a house that has held fast over time- held careful watch over many families.

the moon is brightly reflecting off the ice-blanketed snow on the lawn.  i can see to find my way across the house, turn on the coffee, round up some blankets.  
might as well warm my hands on delicious caffeinated bliss- heavily doused with dark chocolate almond milk.  it will taste like mud for the next two weeks, and i'm not going to sleep tonight. 

3:48 a.m.
getting ready for another day of chemo, another cycle of poisonous, life-saving infusions... it has the anticipation and fear of preparing for childbirth. packing a bag- the familiar and well-loved quilt, the light, refreshing snacks (frozen green grapes- do this for yourself), the distracting books and movies. we fill the waiting-days with washing sheets, stocking the pantry, planning the week to come so everything goes as smoothly as possible.  

the simultaneous 'can i do this?' and 'i must to do this' are alike, minus the beautifully enlarged family at the end of the labor struggle.  but maybe that, too?  if i get to stay here- if all this poison and surgery prevails- isn't our family larger, too? so yes- i feel like i'm preparing for another day of labor:  fighting to be in the room with my babies, to complete our family of four.

3:57 a.m.
the cat is so happy that i'm up.  a little confused as to why i'm not filling his food dish, but pleased to be snuggled under blankets with me well before sunrise. the dog is sleeping and i'm struggling with jealousy.  i love to sleep, and i'm excellent at it when i'm not filled with steroids in preparation for tomorrow's drug-fest.  

4:01 a.m.
i've listened to and read your many prayers, my friends and family from around the world.  you send healing, encouragement, grief, and love in your letters, gifts, and e-mails. i am filled by them. filled by Him through you.  i've tried to explain this before, somewhat unsuccessfully, and i doubt my sleepless, anxious, steroid-addled brain will do better this morning, but my heart will give it a try:
i don't feel like i need to do something to enter into prayer in this season- no  formal 'dear God, it's me- rachel,' no calling out for Him to come near, no A.C.T.S. (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication for those not raised in evangelical-dom).  

i'm just lightly, constantly present with God, able to speak to Him, able to hear Truth. it's not the same prayer as pre-September. it's not the same place i was when Matt had cancer. and while i'm certainly not the same me, God is unchanged- just showing me His closeness in a new and precious way.

4:12 a.m.
i know that may not make sense.  i know some would like to see me doing something more- coming for prayer and anointing? asking for spiritual guidance in some way?  boldly proclaiming and claiming healing?  i am deeply thankful (on a good day) for this desire- it means love to me and my family. but all this is happening inside me... your prayers surround me and cover me with blessing. decades of your mentoring wisdom come back to me- your words floating before me when i need them most.  boldness. is there anything more bold than proclaiming to you that i am in the Lord's presence?  my hands are shaking just knowing that Truth- even in my sick, broken body, i am with God.  i don't know if i will be ultimately healed, though i ask for it.  but i know that i am already Healed- He does this (did it- it has happened!) the moment we see our need and trust He alone can fill it. 
this is the same as when matt was sick: 
i find again that God is enough for my need.

4:23 a.m.
oh coffee.  i will miss you.  see you in 10 days or so.

Monday, December 29, 2014

tea and champagne

i have always loved the end of the year... truth be told, i'm a closet contemplative.  generally a task-oriented, list-making organizer, i set aside that part of me and gather up all my dreamy, 'what could be-ness' and let it flow.  remembering, reviewing, re-grieving, re-celebrating... the regrets and 'should haves' pile up, but there is great satisfaction in the 'we did it!'  the 'look how far we've come' is powerful in my heart, in my prayers.  naming my disappointments and successes gives voice to my thankfulness. i take time to know:  this year was a gift, in both the most painful and most radiant days.

i usually enjoy the anticipation of a new year, too:  admiring the fullness of the bottle we're about to crack open and taste for the first time, wondering what will come bubbling out when the cork is popped.  like great champagne- crisp and sparkling over lips and tongue- the year before us is magically fresh and tastes like opportunity.  not resolutions, not calendar planning, not the to-do list.  those are a separate matter, and the organized 'listy mclisterson' in me can't wait to put pen to paper and color-coordinate all the specifics.  i love details, but those aren't the magic.  it's the life that's going to happen in the new days- there is so much possibility to be uncorked!  something about the turning over of the calendar makes all this so much more compelling, and i love being swept up in the grand, hopeful celebration of it all.

this year is different, of course.  finishing the year with breast cancer wasn't exactly what i was planning when i turned the calendar from '13 to '14.  i would  desperately love to say 2015 will be chemo-free, but it will not be. i'm beginning the year with 2 more rounds in the hope of eliminating the cancer completely before surgery.  i want that- i want to give my body the best chance of getting past this disease. somehow spending the close of the year looking ahead to more poison just doesn't lend itself to expansive dreaming and expectant preparations for the year to come.

it doesn't feel like magic this year.  i don't have the champagne tingle of anticipation as i see 2015 around the corner.  for the first time that i can remember, i would like to fast forward to next winter.  i want to be on the other side, where i can (hopefully) look back on cancer and chemotherapy and surgery and radiation and reconstruction with tired, thankful memories. i want it behind me. onward, upward to the purposes i'm meant to live out- the life that will happen after cancer. 

and there's the lie, did you catch it?  in my 'all or nothing' mentality, i crossed my God-given purposes off the list for the next year and replaced them with cancer. i convinced myself that i was out of commission for gathering, equipping and unleashing myself and others- that God wasn't going to use me this year.  as if i've fallen into a void of uselessness because what i thought i was doing has been derailed.  as if God didn't know this was part of my life story- 'oh, that's too bad... i had such hopes for rachel's life.'  that's not His voice, not His way.

i wanted to be closer to the end of breast cancer so i could keep on with the plans already in progress.  and they were His plans- i still believe that.  there is nothing wrong with where i was heading or the dreams i was pursuing... but now it's on to something different. as Jennie Allen said as she accepted His purpose for If:Gathering, "it’s going to be different… it won’t be a tweaked version of old dreams. these are new and scary and uncomfortable dreams, but they are from God. He builds things like this… people don’t."  

I have a lot of cancer days ahead.  more treatment days. sick days. many surgery days.  healing days.  that's a lot of todays that i could assume i have no purpose- no part in the largeness of God's great story of drawing people to Him.  a lot of todays that i could take for granted as meaningless- 'today i don't matter because i'm sick'- looking forward to someday, when my life matters again.  

but God whispers:
 {today matters as much as someday}

so that's where i begin 2015.  it doesn't feel like the champagne-sparkling hope of years past.  not the same sweet, nose-tickling, 'raise your glass' anticipation. from here, 2015 appears to be a season of watchfulness. listening. quiet,  abiding, 'warm tea by the fireplace' comfort in knowing He hasn't counted me out of His story.  my todays still have meaning. so i will turn the calendar and simply be awake and present for an as yet unrevealed purpose. 

may this calendar-turn bring you both 
hope and comfort... 
sparkling champagne wishes and warm tea dreams
to all of you, my friends!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

to Riverside Church as you move into your new home...

dear Riverside Church friends... there are a thousand things i want to give to you, our first church family, as you celebrate your first Sunday in your new building!  

a thousand thanks for welcoming me as a newly married, mostly terrified, incredibly self-centered young pastor's wife... for raising me to be a wife & mother, a friend & neighbor- one that can occasionally see past myself to  reach out to those around me.   you welcome and cherish each other so well.

a thousand i'm sorrys for the many times i was petty and selfish... you forgave me for so often letting my immaturity cloud my judgment.  another round of thank you's for giving gracious counsel, careful criticism, and then pouring forgiveness on me.  
you stand with each others' limitations so well.

a thousand tears wept together (at least that many)... i'm surprised Hixson didn't have to replace that hallway carpet from the mornings we spent grieving loss and hurt on each others' shoulders.  we lost children, parents, siblings, grandparents... we cried over damaged friendships, painful and scary illness, broken marriages.  we cried when we were sad, and we cried together.  
you mourn with each other so well.

another thousand tears of laughter and embarrassing snorts of happiness that burst out when you're among the best sorts of friends. chili suppers (such as you will enjoy tomorrow- how i wish i could be there!), sweltering july picnics, late nights at the women's retreats, and seeing Zack dance on stage (the earthy dance? was that it? it has been several years, but i still smile when i think of it!)... these are moments i remember laughing long and hard with you.  
you enjoy life together so well!

a thousand moments of celebration with you... your weddings, your graduations, your good news from the doctors, your children's births.  the smiles, the toasts, the shared joys are among my most precious memories.  
you celebrate each other so well.

a thousand layers of grace from the Lord.  as He built up our faith and tore down our idols and pulled away our hardness and gave us new eyes and new hearts, we grew together and we are no longer who we once were.  we are changed by His love, His freedom, His gentle call to turn to Him.  
you follow Jesus together so well. 

it is such an honor to have entered into these sacred moments with you. i can't find the words to tell you how i treasure my memories of 10 years with you.  and to see you now?  working together to purchase and restore a beautiful new home- the place you will welcome new families, accept them into your hearts, raise them up, mourn with them, laugh with them, celebrate with them, grow in grace with them? i am filled with gratitude for you and all the Lord has done!  

as you enjoy your first Sunday without a set up/tear down crew (AAAAAHHH!), your first day singing and celebrating the risen Christ in the new sanctuary, your first morning of praying and hearing Scripture corporately in your new home, know that you have been lifted up from a thousand miles away.  

And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace...  Philippians 1:6-7

Sunday, November 9, 2014

rinse & repeat

chemo is even less fun than you've imagined... unless you've had it or are having it now, then you know exactly.  no need for details- i'm just sick for about a week and then i slowly feel better & have more energy until i go back for another round every 21 days.  hopefully just rinse & repeat 6 times.

one interesting revelation in all of this is that i'm not a medicine person.  around age 5, i broke into an upper cabinet & ate a bunch of baby aspirin... that's the last time i remember wanting to take a lot of pills.  (those tasted like cherry- who can blame a kid?!)  i'm usually more of a 'wait & see' person.  if i have a headache, i drink a glass of water or go outside for a short walk.   upset stomach?  drink some bone broth and take a closer look at my diet from recent days.  skin red & itchy?  removing grains and dairy from my food cleared that right up.  there's a pill for every ailment, but they seem to adversely affect me in one way or another- i didn't realize how much i disliked medications until now!  

but then there's chemo... when you pour toxic chemicals into your veins, you get immediate side effects.  chemically-induced illnesses don't go away with whole foods and a glass of water. you can't always 'wait & see'- ongoing digestive distress (ahem) dehydrates & weakens your body, which is already reeling.  so basically, i'm a ping-pong ball.  i fly between hot flashes & fever chills, exhaustion & restlessness, hungry & nauseous.  i'll spare you the other extremes.  but there's a pill for that, and i have no choice but to take it.  

so i'm not feeling great, but there are a few things that are helping.  maybe they will help you to care for someone (or maybe yourself) in the same boat?  

1. meals for my family. our community drops meals at our house several days a week. i'm not able to eat them the week after chemo (though they smell delicious!), but it's a precious and selfless gift to prepare food for my people.  i'm so thankful.

2. bottled water. i'm usually a tap water person, but i can taste all the metals in our well water right now, and bottle water is delightfully bland.  the more i drink, the better i feel- hydration always matters, and right now i'm keenly aware.

3. bone broth. when i can drink 1-2 cups of warm bone broth (beef, chicken, pork- any healthy animal bones + veggies), i have more energy & less stomach upset.  it's a highly nutrient dense drink, and it doesn't take much to see the benefit.

4. walking outdoors. being in Connecticut, my days of outdoor walks are approaching an end.  shifting to snow shoes may be the thing, though, because movement fights chemical induced fatigue better than sleep!  i'm not terribly aerobic these days, but 30 minutes of slow walking helps a lot.  

5.  friends who give ENORMOUS grace.  this bears repeating:  you are loving us well, friends.  i know you wish you could DO something, and i understand that impulse.  i like to 'do,' too!  it's so much easier than praying, hoping, and waiting.  i get it.  but there isn't always something to do, is there?  some days we get 5 offers for groceries, walks, and babysitting- we take great comfort in both your offers of love and your ability to hear 'no thank you.'  it doesn't seem like much, but when you accept 'no,' you are not requiring more of us than we have to give today.  that is just as much a gift to us as your time & service.

hear this, please:  when you quietly leave a meal outside our door, when you send a text that i can't respond to for days, when you just wish you could do something to help - we know you love us, and that is everything. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

i am sure of this

i spent about seven weeks this summer preparing a study called Who Does God Say He Is to share with the women in my church & community.  it's a look at how God describes Himself in the Bible- what He reveals through the names and attributes used throughout His written story.  layer after layer, each word builds a clearer picture of Him, and still we never finish.  He is never done showing us who He is and how He longs for us to reflect Him in and to our world.

for a few hours almost every day, i asked Him to pour out the abundance of who He is like unleashed clouds on those warm hazy August days.  that is something He loves to do... to drench us in Himself!  i soaked in Truth, drank in Mystery, overwhelmed again that this Well will not run dry. 

Creator and Restorer, Accessible and Unchanging, Sovereign and Faithful, Merciful, Just, Good... 
did you know it's possible to be completely satisfied and achingly thirsty at the same time?  
to both see Him more clearly and know at the very core of your being that these mysteries are beyond your understanding?  
to recognize yourself as He created you, Image Bearer, and yet long to know who you are becoming more strongly than ever?  
it's a rumbling waterfall of contrasting feelings- noisy and restful at once.

this is where i found myself- sopping wet and dripping with Grace and Truth- on September 11. in the early Fall sunshine, wrapped in a soft blanket and sitting in a chippy white Adirondack chair {my most prized roadside rescue}, i was full to overflowing as I answered the phone and talked to the doctor about my breast cancer.

i tell you this because i am not so strong, not so faithful.  i'm angry at this bad news, hurt by the chemotherapy, afraid for my children, sad for my husband.  
i'm also sure of this: 
 all that God showed me of Himself in August 
did not become untrue in September.  

the abundance of Himself that He poured over me?  it's soaking in, filling the places that i cannot see or describe to you. He is still my Restorer, still Unchanging, still Sovereign, still Good, still Merciful... all this and more.
He is still enough.

your prayers, gifts, letters, hugs, meals, kind words, service and love are such an offering of His grace to our family... we will never be able to give back all that we've already received, and we are grateful that you are pouring out on us.  
we love you. yes- you.