Overcome

DSC01261Every Good Friday, as I contemplate the death of Jesus, I think about the death of my own father, who died eight years ago of pancreatic cancer on Good Friday itself. It’s hard to think the timing of a loved one’s death could be good no matter when it is–and my father’s death was a great loss to our family–but I feel that God helped my family with the timing of my dad’s death in a big way.

Although I was across the country teaching high school at the time, I was able to be with my parents for a good portion of the three weeks that my dad knew he had cancer before he died. The reason for this is that he found out the diagnosis right before my spring break, so I could easily travel out of state to be with them through the first appointments and processing that went on as we turned to face the deadly threat of cancer. I could help them in small ways, and I could call on God for help with them. I went back home and left them for a week and a half, at the end of which the doctors were talking about hospice care, no more than days before the end. I flew back out there, once again only missing a few days of work because Good Friday and the day after Easter were scheduled days off school.

The timing was good when it came to me being able to be there with my parents as they faced death together, but the timing was even better because it was Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus dying on the cross. Every year now, Good Friday is that much more meaningful and poignant to me. I understand the gravity of Jesus’ death–I can picture His last breath in a way I couldn’t before. I feel the weight of it.

More importantly, though, two days later, on Easter morning, I was strongly embraced (the same way my dad used to hug me) by the hope that because of Jesus’ victory over death, my dad is alive in Heaven, as well. I picture him going on a walk with my sister, grandma, and brother-in-law, maybe even holding my miscarried child’s hand, my sister and sister-in-law’s miscarried children running alongside. That Easter, and every Easter since, filled me with a piercing, painful joy. Death has been defeated! I can say along with Paul, quoting from Hosea, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (I Cor. 15:55).

My worship leaders at church this past Easter chose a few songs this year with the words “He has overcome.” I was reminded once again: He HAS overcome the grave! And if He can overcome that, what stronghold can’t He overcome? He wears the victor’s crown!

Threads, Part Four

God often teaches us more through our hard times than He does in the midst of our good days. Those who have followed this series know that I attended a conference session by Jennie Allen a little while back. In that session, Jennie encouraged us all to think about the three best moments in our lives and the three worst, and to think about why those moments stuck with us so much. She wanted to know if God used those moments as threads that ran through the rest of our lives, and if not, should we have let that happen? The last three posts I wrote were about my three best moments and how God has used them in my life. I thought I wasn’t going to delve into my darkest moments here, but after praying about it, I decided it would be a good idea if I did. For many of us at the conference, these were the ones that inevitably brought tears, but they tended to be the most meaningful. I have two connected moments I will share here.

The first moment I remember might be vivid because of the outcome. I was 16 years old, by myself in my church parking lot, and I was praying with as much intensity as I had in me that my sister Tiffany wouldn’t divorce her husband Randy. I prayed with all my might that she would change her mind–that God would change it for her. But He didn’t. No matter how hard I prayed and no matter how much everybody tried to talk her out of it, Tiffany still went ahead with that divorce.

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Tiffany, Randy, and Brittany, maybe a year before their divorce.

If you read my other thread posts, you may notice that this moment is connected to the one I mentioned in Part One, the moment when my dad called me his prayer warrior when I was a little kid. Mostly because of the faith God built up in me, answering my little prayers about parking spaces and lost toys, I knew that God could say yes to any prayer He wanted to. I had learned how powerful He is through my church, my parents, and the Bible. So why didn’t He say yes to this one? It seemed to be obviously in His will–after all, although He gives provision for it in some cases, God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16).

I had prayed with faith, I had seemingly prayed in His will, and I had prayed in His name, but His answer was no. I didn’t know how to pray after that. My faith was shaken, although I never doubted He was good or that He knew what He was doing.

I can’t say that I ever understood why God allowed Tiffany to divorce her husband and cause pain to others through it. He did bring good out of it, including the birth of my incredible nephew Kaleb. I did learn, however, that God allows us to make devastating choices sometimes. He gives us free will even when it causes pain, even when others are begging Him to stop us so the pain will be prevented. He can use us as puppets, and perhaps He sometimes does. After all, Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.” He can control us however He wants, but I believe He allows us for the most part to choose to do right or wrong, desiring all along that we will choose right. There are many verses in the Bible to support the notion of us having a choice to do right or wrong (II Cor. 13:7, James 4:17, Prov. 3:7, etc.). My sister simply made the wrong choice, as we all often do.

In light of this, however, I didn’t understand how to pray. I kept praying, but I continued to wrestle with this at some level.

Then, when I was a senior in college, came a second moment, also involving my sister. I remember very clearly when I received a phone call in my on-campus apartment and how I sank to the ground in disbelief when I understood the words of my mother: Tiffany had been diagnosed with acute leukemia.

Here's a picture of me and Tiffany from sometime when I was in college.

This is me and Tiffany from sometime when I was in college.

You can believe that I prayed throughout the time that Tiffany had cancer that she would be healed. This didn’t have to do with a person’s free will, so it was a simple matter of God, who could easily heal anybody of anything, just answering my prayer (and many other people’s prayers) with a yes. I believed to the last moment that He would. I thought maybe He was waiting until the doctors gave up hope before He would heal her completely, causing everybody to know for sure that it was God who did it. But He chose not to heal her that way and brought her home to Heaven instead.

I couldn’t believe He had said no, but my faith wasn’t shaken like it might have been if He had said yes to the divorce request. He had partially prepared me, but it did bring up some of the same questions I had back when I was 16. People, later, would tell me to pray for something or other and trust that God would answer yes. I would think, I know God has the power to do this, but He might not say yes. He hasn’t always said yes to me, even when it was really important to me.

It wasn’t until after a few years after Tiffany’s death that I learned to pray in a new way: “If it’s Your will, God…” I wasn’t going to give up asking God for what I wanted or thought I needed (I have definitely had times of desperate, intense prayer since then), but I started asking in a more humble way: “If it’s Your will…” When I do that, I am able to have the attitude of trust in Him, His ability and His goodness, no matter what the outcome might be. It might sound cliche to some, but I truly trust that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). I trust it because I’ve seen it.

God took the very moments that shook my faith and used them to strengthen my faith, teaching me (among many other lessons) how to pray in an attitude of surrender and trust.

Nike Women’s Marathon

Doing your first marathon is an amazing experience, but doing it with Team in Training goes far beyond that.  I loved being able to raise a significant amount of money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, especially as I did it alongside thousands of other people.  My hope was that we would be an encouragement to those fighting blood cancers and to their families.  Although I did my part to raise money and awareness, I still felt like it was more the result of the support of my family and friends and the result of the coaches and support staff from Team in Training–that all of them deserved any applause coming.

Therefore, when I entered the huge building where the Inspiration Dinner was being held the night before the race, I was more than overwhelmed and humbled by the deafening applause and cheers that erupted as we, the race participants and fundraisers, walked through the doors and down the corridor of TNT coaches and support staff toward our dinner tables.  These cheerleaders literally injured their own ear drums for at least a full hour as everybody streamed through into the huge dinner hall.

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I choked up, not feeling worthy and not able to look at those cheering, as I thought of my sister and others dealing with the same horror of cancer–the reason why we were doing what we were doing.

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At the dinner, we were amazed by the enormous amount of people on an ongoing slide show either taken by or fighting through a blood cancer.  We were touched by a mother doing the Nike Women’s Marathon as a fifth major way for her to give back and celebrate five years of her son being cancer-free.  We were entertained by a Runner’s World writer, the Penguin, who told us what we should expect during the marathon.  And we were inspired by Olympian and 2:24 marathon runner Kara Goucher.

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One of the best things about Team in Training is meeting the amazing people who participate in it.  The little girl in the purple glasses was our honored teammate–the one for whom we all ran.  She had leukemia, but during our training, she finished her last treatment, and we were able to celebrate with her.

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Here we all are (including our Nashville teammates) the morning of the race.

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The starting area was absolutely packed.  It was almost harder to get my bag to bag check through the crush of people than to do the marathon–I thought I wasn’t going to make it to the start in time.  Thankfully, I made it with several minutes to spare.  I was in a corral of people with similar goal times near the front, but it still took me about a minute and a half to get to the starting line once the gun fired.

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I guess I should have started a little closer to the front of my corral because I was stuck behind a lot of runners going at a slower pace than I needed to run.  I had been warned repeatedly not to go out too fast, but I didn’t really have a choice–I had to go about a minute slower per mile than I wanted for the first mile or so.  Around when this picture was taken, maybe two miles into it, I was fairly euphoric.  People were excited all around me, I heard two women praying aloud while running that they might glorify God, and I turned to them, and said, “Me, too!” meaning that I wanted to glorify Him, too, but I wonder now if they thought I wanted to be glorified, too.  We ran by this gospel choir singing beautiful praise, and I know I was beaming.

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About three miles in, my hamstring started to hurt.  I was on an anti-inflammatory that had held me up without hamstring pain in a workout four weeks prior for almost 17 miles, so when I started hurting after three, I was really concerned.  I remembered trying to run through pain in a marathon in Orange County, getting halfway through and having to get someone to drive me back.  I went probably four or five years without running because of that injury.  I didn’t want to do the same thing again, so I prayed for wisdom–should I stop or not?  And, of course, I prayed that God would heal me and let me run.  It wasn’t two minutes later that my hamstring stopped hurting and never hurt again the entire 23.2 miles that I had left to go, not even up the hills.  I haven’t been running since the marathon, but the hamstring never hurt more than anything else even when I was so sore after the race.  I can only attribute this to the kindness of God, listening to my and many friends’ and family members’ prayers.  I’m still in awe that with all in the world that needs prayer, that so many people would take the time to pray for something as unimportant as my hamstring for this marathon of mine.  But it was very important to me, and although I don’t think it helped a soul but my own to run this thing (I had already raised the money), God healed me and allowed me to run it.  He is such a kind God–a good Father who wants to give good gifts to His children.  I know this about Him and have had it proven many times, but this fact still never ceases to astonish me.

Something that shouldn’t have surprised me about this race since I had repeatedly been warned, were the hills.  I had been told there would be no cable car hills, so I thought they’d be no big deal.  This first one was short and relatively painless.

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But there were several more that seemed to go on a long time.  Below was the first long one, but thankfully, it wasn’t too bad with the help of some extremely generous TNT coaches.  Each coach was stationed in a section of the race, and the coaches would especially cheer for TNT runners and then choose certain ones who looked like they needed encouragement to run with them.  I must have looked like I needed encouragement on this hill because I had three different coaches (one at a time) help me run up it, one of which was my own, very dedicated, encouraging coach from Knoxville, John Longmire!  He ran 30 miles by the end of the marathon just helping different runners.

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He encouraged me to look at the view once I reached the top, and although I was fairly addled by the time I reached it, I was blown away by the beauty. I wished several times that I could take pictures–I’m glad a friend on the team took some, but the pictures still don’t do it justice.

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This view was so beautiful, it reminded me of the Amalfi Coast in Italy.

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And, although this picture doesn’t show it very well, we had an amazing view of the Golden Gate for a very long time as we ran by a beautiful park showcasing it.  I don’t know how many times I thanked God for being a part of this whole experience and getting to see such beautiful sights.  And although there were a lot of uphills, of course that means that there were some sizeable downhills as well–free running!  It was a good place for me to make up the time I had lost on the way up.

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People ask what you think about when you run for such a long time.  Normally, I try to pray for people when I run, and I laugh at myself because my brain starts working so slowly that I end up praying for the same person for 8 or 10 miles.  It takes all my concentration to go on to the next person.  I did pray for people a little, I thanked Him a lot, I asked Him for help, I listened to and tried to get away from one obnoxious chattering girl who obviously didn’t feel like the marathon was a very hard thing to do, I drank water, I ate Power Gel, I scrambled after a water bottle I dropped once, and I even encouraged a few TNT runners (“Go, Team!”).  I laughed at cheerleaders lining the road yelling, “Run, run, down the road!  Run, run, down the road!”  Yeah, that’s why we don’t normally ask them to cheer for us runners.  I got a huge boost and grinned whenever I heard drummers–there were several energetic groups along the way.  For a long time, I watched for my family because I knew they might be at mile 11 or 16 in Golden Gate Park since those points were near the finish line (I found out later that my poor brother, his wife, and my nephew had tried to see me, but they couldn’t find parking, and when they finally did a long way away and had gotten down to the finish on their skateboards and scooter, they couldn’t get across the main road where everyone was running, and with 70,000 people down at the beach and my mom’s phone not working, they couldn’t find us, either.  My mom was just trying to manage to make it to the finish line without a stroller with my very tired three year old).  When I saw one of my best friends, Ellen, maybe around mile 16, who had come up from Southern California, I received the biggest burst of energy–I couldn’t believe how good it was to see her face.

Just after the Ghiradelli chocolate mile (they were giving out chocolate squares–as if I was going to eat one of those at that point), just before mile 22, I had just passed a TNT runner who I had run with for a little while (a TNT coach had run with us for a short time and encouraged us but had stopped maybe a half mile back), and I was feeling pretty exhausted.  A TNT coach asked if I wanted someone to run with me, and I just nodded at him.  I was past the point of talking or even smiling.  That guy encouraged me, picked up my water bottle when I dropped it once again, filled it up with water since I was all out (I was wearing a fuel belt–I only choke on and spill the water in cups they have at races), and ran with me for about a mile and a half (it felt like at least three).  I know I couldn’t have made the time I did without the TNT coaches.  The best runners get pacers/rabbits, but the rest of us could use a little help now and then, too!  TNT provided that for us.

The last two and a half miles were on a long, straight road that seemed to go on forever.  At that point, I was pretty much by myself, and it was pretty painful, but also hope-filled since I knew I was getting really close.  Below is a picture of me near the finish line.

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I guess I looked pretty bad when I finished because three people all together tried to pull me into a wheelchair moments after I finished, but I refused because I couldn’t imagine sitting down at that point–I would have thrown up or passed out, I think.  I literally had to yell at them to get them to leave me alone.  A few moments later, a woman was handing out protein drinks, and I wanted one, so I looked at her to get one, but when she saw me, instead of giving me a drink, she gave me a concerned look and told me she was a nurse–could she help me?  A few steps later, I realized I was being followed, and the wary guy who realized he had been caught hastily told me that he was just making sure I was ok (I guess he didn’t want me yelling at him, too).  He hustled me ahead of the line to exit where I could receive my Tiffany finisher’s necklace and get a picture taken with a tuxedoed fireman if I wanted (I didn’t) and pick up my finisher’s shirt.  He pointed me several times to the medical tent, which I ignored.

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I headed to check out at the TNT tent, so they would know I had finished, but by that point, I started to feel the pain that I guess must have been written on my face as soon as I had finished.  My mom, Mr. C, and Ellen found me, and I was able to get a few pictures taken with them in between waves of pain. But then it got a little too intense, and I decided to head over to the medical tent after all, just in case…

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…where I stayed for another half hour or so while they checked me out, cleaned and bandaged my blisters (I had one blood blister that was so huge and gross that it made two separate RNs gasp), gave me water and Gatorade, and finally determined that I was ok to release.  I was probably dehydrated, but I was fine–I’m usually in a good amount of pain after a long run.  They let me keep the cool Red Cross blanket!

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As you can see on the back of my shirt below, I did this whole thing in honor of my sister Tiffany who died of leukemia.  I did it to help others going through the same ordeal.  I did it to honor my father, who also died of cancer, who did a Team in Training event years before my sister was diagnosed.  I did it to honor my mother, who lost even more than I did when she lost her husband and daughter.  I did it to see if I could do it in the time I wanted, and thankfully, God allowed me to get very close to my goal time, just nine seconds away: 3:31:08 and tenth in my age group.  I did it to qualify for the Boston Marathon, a goal I’ve had for a long time, which I was also thankfully able to do.  Praise God for His goodness in allowing me to do so much of what I had hoped!

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After cleaning up afterwards, I limped over to the Cheesecake Factory at the top of Macy’s in Union Square (pretty much every muscle in my body was sore for days afterwards) and celebrated my nephew’s 19th birthday with my brother, his wife, my mom, Mr. C, and Ellen with key lime cheesecake and chocolate mousse cheesecake.  Could there be a better finish?