From Dome to Dome and Victory to Victory. 

“I’ll have a Bellini and the chocolate s’mores cheesecake, please,” she said, and the waiter zoomed off into the dark-lit crowd. I don’t think there was any music playing in the restaurant; if there was, we couldn’t hear it. Dark wooded walls and marble-tiled floors encased us in a bit of French exquisiteness in the middle of our busy Tuesday night lives.

“So you ARE going to Conference now?” she continued.

I nodded, and we started talking about where last year’s Conference had met us in life.

60,000 college-aged students filling up the Georgia Dome with one anthem, one pulse.

“It’s neat because I was at Conference 2013, back in the Dome, and so it’s interesting to go back over the past four years and see what time has done from Dome to Dome.”

I told her I had been at the Dome back in 2013, too. She talked about how, that year, she’d been in a co-ed room where they fought over the roll-away-bed until three in the morning; I told her about the way I exploded into inconsolable tears in the middle of the CNN center amongst 20,000 other students because my cousin had been mean to me and the 32 flights of stairs I had to climb at one in the morning to get back to my hotel room.

Passion Conference 2013 at the Georgia Dome met a wide-eyed seventeen year old version of myself that was far too loud and overly-excited about anything. I’d done it right, played by the rules, waited until I was a senior in high school to finally buy my ticket and attend. I was staying on the thirty-second floor of the Westin in Downtown Atlanta, in a room with my cousin, my boyfriend’s little sister, and a girl I could hardly stand to be around at the time. Sam and Drew and Austin were staying a room down. In the next three days, I would have a meltdown when my boyfriend showed up for our lunch break in the CNN Center and ended up flirting with my cousin and humiliating me, would stand in the nose bleeds with the kids I’d grown up with and worship Jesus with them for the first time, and end up getting lost in Atlanta alone with the girl I’d pegged as another typical attention-starved new kid. Those first three days of 2013 changed my year, my walk, my prayer life, and the way I thought about God.

2013 looked like graduating from high school, starting college, getting a fresh start, breaking up with my boyfriend of two years after he’d unraveled me into a whisper, and learning to run to the city. It was the year of the boy with blue eyes, getting my dream job with So Worth Loving, interning for Hannah Brencher, and tattoos. It was the year of cutting way too much of my hair off and starting a blog and falling in love for the first time with a boy I thought I’d always wanted. It was the year of cancer, the year I stood up for myself and got knocked out, the year of fast cars and my first broken heart. It was the cusp of a downward spiral. It was me trying to figure out what to do with my life.

2014 was the year Passion Conference moved to Phillips Arena, and I pitched a fit about the prices. Boycotting the whole thing, I started that year out in Florida with my mom at the To Write Love on Her Arms Heavy and Light Tour. That was the year of snow storms and trying to save myself before I got too sad; it was the year of family and Enos and weekends spent on 10th street with a boy I’d always known. It was the year of psych wards and California and turning 18. It was a year that would define a hard season, a year that would touch me cruelly. That was the year I fell in love with a boy who knocked the wind out of me when he left. That was the year when I was a junior in college, and I found myself telling my advisor that I’d made a mistake and needed to take a break to rethink what I wanted to do. That was the year I lost my mind. That was the year that darkness won.

2015 was the year of purple hair. It was the year of full circles and learning that sometimes God gives us things back just to remind us why He took them away in the first place so that we’ll stop pointing the finger at Him. It was the year I broke a boy’s heart while I was trying to make mine feel better, the year of music festivals, the year of secrets. It was the year of If You Find This Email and it was the year of depression. It was the year of no longer liking myself and being kept up at night by my own ghost. It was the year my cousin left and my uncle died. It was the year the storm clouds started to break, and I felt called into ministry when God started yelling from the top shelf I’d put Him on. It was the year I got a job with a church. It was the year of bruised knuckles. It was the year I met Greg. It was the prodigal year.

In 2016, I finally went back to conference, but not without a fight. 2016 started in a house full of people I barely knew on New Year’s Eve at a birthday party for someone I didn’t even know yet. It started with a free ticket to Conference because some friends I’d only known for two weeks wanted to see my life be dazzled by God again, even if I was too stubborn to want that myself. And, well— 2016 dazzled me.

You know that feeling just after it rains when the pavement is still hot and smokey, and there’s still humidity in the air so you still feel kind of gross but not exactly like a wet rat? That was me this time last year.

Of course, I didn’t say all of this in that little French cafe on a Tuesday night. But you better believe that I walked through the past four years my whole drive home.

And I see God when I look back. I see the mess and the ache and the revival and the new. And I see God.

Four years ago, I was a girl with an immature faith that chased God in shallow waters. Now I sit with Him; now I don’t move without Him, and when I do, it’s from victory to victory. Maybe it was four years of doing away with the parts of me that wouldn’t fit His will, but now I’ve been rebuilt and restored.

Now in three days, I’ll be back in the Dome. With Greg and my sweet little sister. I’ve got open hands. There’s more victories to chase.

Sending 2016 on its way. 

2016.

For me, the dreaded year looked like graduating from college. It looked like turning 21 and spending my birthday in California at the Coachella music festival. It looked like figuring out that if I eat too much gluten, my entire body breaks out and that maybe my hair isn’t meant for bleach. It looked like recuperating from 2014 and 2015 and falling in love. It looked like my first mission trip overseas. It looked like waiting and starting; it looked like going back to school for a Masters in Biblical Studies when I had worked so hard to be done with that season of life. It looked like being hard-headedly determined to grow my hair out just to cut it all off by the end of the year. It looked like a change of diet, falling in love with paleo recipes, and moving out of my home for the first time. It looked like a 8-4 full time cubicle job an hour away from home and getting engaged to the love of my life. It looked like the immeasurably more and how that doesn’t always fit our vision.

It’s just that it also looked like a new sort of loneliness. It looked like learning the difference between the labels “best friend” and “dear friend” and revisiting a season of my life where the importance of clapping for people who show up took the driver’s seat. It looked like calling my demons by their real names so that I could face them in the dark. It looked like battling anxiety in the midst of an exciting season. It looked like tuning and pruning and having to endure the qualification process of being called into ministry. It looked like learning what the hustle really means and having to hustle against the odds of being a “millennial.” It looked like unbelievable unexpected ache and facing the fact that settling down doesn’t settle our worries or insecurities– that you don’t just grow up and finally find your people and have to stop fearing losing the ones you thanked God for. It looked like gaining weight and losing weight and feeling like the freak who chose the big-kid job over Atlanta adventures. It looked like figuring out how to step forward when the people you pulled close just didn’t show up. It looked like having to balance the excitement with the bittersweet ache of leaving what I’ve always known for something I’ve always reached for. It looked like writing words I couldn’t take back that burned bridges. It looked a lot like facing my mess and my ugly and my own brokenness.

 
So maybe my 2016 wasn’t that awful. It was actually very kind to me. But in its kindness, as I hit all of these milestones of life, there were lessons it seemed to drown me in:

– Consistency is key. I think I heard the word “consistency” so many times at the beginning of this year that I thought God was playing a joke on me. Like “Okay, I get it God- You want me to be consistent.” It’s just that the rest of the year looked like learning what consistency dresses up as in the morning. Maybe it was being consistent in friendships; Jordan Randall taught me that being consistent in a friendship doesn’t always look like a consistent physical presence (seeing how he lives 1,000 miles away), but that consistency in friendship can mean phone calls for life updates, rooting for each other in the wins and the quick “I’m sick, pray for me” texts, or the iMessage check-ins. Or maybe consistency was washing my face every night to prevent future break outs instead of just washing it to get rid of any present bumps, or having a consistent diet that I didn’t break. Maybe consistency was learning what it would take to grow a movement like If You Find This Email– realizing its bigness and my smallness and failing epically at planning routine posts. If anything, 2016 beat me over the head with lessons in consistency and the fact that consistency births thankfulness; or cultivates exponential growth when people can depend on a text or a post or a response; it prevents and solves problems; it calls for routines and planning and those things are what call for grit and determination and self-control and pushing yourself.

 
– You’ve gotta choose to give grace, even in the moments before you make that choice when you realize that you won’t get it back. 2016 was humbling; it bent and broke me, grinding me down just to rebuild me into someone that can be the first to apologize even in the instances of misunderstanding and good intentions and having been the one who was wronged. It slapped me in the face with the realization that if I’m going to stand next to Greg at the altar in January between two olive branches of peace, then I better be quick to extend olive branches to the hearts that break mine. 

– Again I found myself falling at the feet of this lesson: show up for people. When you’re tired, when it’s awkward, when it’s been so long since you’ve seen them. Show up for people. And clap loudly for the people that show up for you. Changing seasons can either be dressed up in glittering golden hope or deflating obstacles to overcome, but most of the time they’re probably both. And it’s important to notice the people who show up, who stick around on the sidelines rooting for you, who get down in the dirt to help you dig everything up, and who march with you for the victory lap. I think that at the brink of the loss in 2016, I was hyper focused on the empty seats and too intent on making my points and arguments and pain known and understood that I didn’t even notice the people standing up in the rafters cheering for me.

 
– Stop fighting so hard to be heard and understood. Just give ’em grace and preach Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

– This year, I wrote a letter to my little sister that I shared with the world where I asked her to keep holding out for the people she’s been praying for, a first kiss, a hand to hold, Friday night plans. That was in January, and I think now I’d probably tell her something different: I had it all wrong. Make it about Jesus, little sister. Hold out for Him to come in and sweep you off your feet, because I didn’t know He was such a great romancer. Let Him into the lonely and the quiet, let Him fill those spaces up. Quit bending over backwards and stretching your neck to try and find all the things I’ve discovered to be empty and broken, and just look at Him.

 
– Society says “You can do and become anything you want,” rather than “You can do and become anything you want, it just takes hard work.” The road to “anything you want” is scattered with check points of the nitty-gritty, not-so-sexy daily grind. 

– Lately I’ve been thinking and learning more and more that self-control is a hefty fruit of the Spirit that becomes more relevant in our daily lives the more we grow. Maybe that’s why “adulting” is so intimidating: our lives lack regimen until it happens. Now I find myself cyclically having to choose between two desires of my heart; I could go to Atlanta and sit on the Crown Plaza roof all day drinking a London Fog, OR I could work 9-5 every single day of the week so that I can afford the sweet apartment in Lawrenceville and a life with Greg. Life is choice. It is choosing, choosing, and more choosing, and usually looks more like dying to self daily. Because there’s a girl in me who still wishes she had some blue tipped hair and a cozy seat in a white coffee shop tucked away in Kirkwood where she could write her poems. And I see pieces of her die every day when I choose Greg or groceries or saving money on gas. At first, it felt unnatural and terrifying. Now? Now I have this purposed-filled life where there is satisfaction in finding new recipes to learn on Pinterest when I get home from work. There’s satisfaction in the fact that my cubicle doesn’t have the kind of Instagram-worthy lighting. Because at the end of the day, it means Greg; at the end of the day it means lifting up priorities and letting people and things know that they’re worth it because in choosing this or that, it means pieces of my former self are dying. And that’s coming from the girl who just wanted to know she could change and be better and more hopeful and less of a runner. New is good. Self-control births new life.

– In the ache, there is a conditioning to remember: He is saving you from something and for something.

– We are a generation that overthinks, is way too in tune with how we feel and let’s our goals and dreams and calling in life get bulldozed by those feelings. We idolize self-discovery, except our core exists apart from Christ. All of our soul searching and self-expression is a downward spiral of fumbling across our sin, when our eyes should be higher; we should be searching His word, discovering who He is, walking His path, and listening to His calling. Preach Him. Encourage head-dives into who He is and who He calls us to be.

– At the end of the day, you gotta fight your own dark, first. Call yourself out. Pluck the plank out of your own eye. Less them, less here-and-now, more Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

– 2016 sat down with the girl who thought she’d always be second choice. The girl who thought she had no value to add to someone’s life, that people’s lives were better without her in them. The girl who tried for years to pin point what was wrong with her that made leaving easy. The girl that made lists of what to say and asked too many questions to seem interesting and wore red lip stick with all black attire like she lived a life more intriguing than everyone else. 2016 sat down with that version of myself– with that blame and those doubts and pointed fingers– and made me sit in the realization that my insecurities became heavier the more I focused on them. 2016 had the hard conversation with me about how maybe all of the moments that I got left behind or disregarded or left unchosen– maybe those weren’t moments where I could’ve been more or been cleverer or funnier or prettier or wittier or quicker or better– but those were moments left undone by God’s will for the immeasurably more. For all the moments where my heart broke and left me feeling disposable– 2016 looked like giving God’s will for the immeasurably more all of the credit instead of putting the brunt of the blame on myself.

– In this season of engagement, 2016 has spoken this: I find that I am in the process of taking off my old self to become this new thing in oneness with Him, and I’m falling more in love with Jesus for giving me this example of how He restores me into something that can one day stand before Him a new creation. I’m thankful Greg and I got it right the first time. Thankful there haven’t been any doubts. Thankful for the pruning process and restoration of our hearts and beings as we step into this new life, new creations, restoring one another to our fullest.

– 2016 began with a quote from Louie Giglio at Passion Conference: “We are a generation of people playing the victim while Jesus is still walking around with scars in His hands. He does not live in what happened to Him. We have to get low, be willing to risk walking without our limp that we’ve come to depend on as a coping mechanism for life, come down to Jesus’ level and walk out of the grave with Him.” The 11 months that followed were stepping stones along the way to realizing that– we have to stop telling sad stories. We have to give up the ghosts and stop over-romanticizing the past and the people we couldn’t keep. We have to stop sugar-coating the truth to make it readable. It has to be about more than just having a good story to tell. Because 2016 took my story out of the picture and made me face the stories I should be telling– and they’re not about me. I don’t want to tell sad stories anymore. I don’t want to give heart breakers blue eyes and dress up the loneliness in a pretty poem. I want to stop clapping for the darkness. I want to tell stories marked by what God has done.

2016 was full of fulfilled promises, whether those answered prayers looked like a love story and healing that was immeasurably more than what I had in mind or tough lessons that grew me up and restored me back to Him. 

January 2016 met me in a place of desperation and trying to play catch-up to get back to the girl I was.

 
January 2017 will meet me at the altar between two olive branches promising all of who I have been and all of who I will be to the man who has my heart forever. 
And that’s a good story. That’s a better story than I could’ve told a year ago. A story filled with character development and second chances and opened eyes and ripping off the rose-colored glasses. An immeasurably more. A story worth telling.

I can’t wait to see what sort of story God lets me tell in 2017.

We’ve got heaven locked up in these bones. 

What are they doing here, I thought, crossing the room and looking back over my shoulder.

The figure stood in the corner, but the presence seemed to fill up every space. 

I looped my arm through Greg’s and smiled so big that my eyes closed up.

Take slower breath’s and ignore it, I told myself, taking a seat at the table. The peaks you’ve climbed and the summits you’ve reached this past year will not be wasted. You’ve made leaps and bounds. Let that matter.

My hands shook folding my napkin in my lap. They took a seat a few tables down, and I caught every slow movement, every glance towards me, every cough that covered up a low whisper.

 
The icy stares I could feel from where I sat brushed against my cheek and reminded me of the way the cold tile in my bathroom felt on my face. 

My chest heaved as the words in conversations around me danced across the table, tiptoeing along in my train of thought like I wasn’t even sitting there.

 
Greg’s hand on my shaking knee– he was there. Shouldn’t that make the breathing easier? His eyes smiled at me and I thanked God.

Except my head hurt, and I was thinking about the way I was breathing too much. 
The figure, dark and tall, moving quickly now, strutting around the room like this party was thrown in their honor.

 
With clammy skin, I rose from my chair. Everyone was a cloud spinning around me. I hugged my frame, trying to find something that would materialize beneath my fingers– trying to find something that held weight in my mind, something that held meaning.

 
The figure was real. Staring at me from the doorway now, I knew it was the only thing more real than the lump in my throat. 
Every sound tuned out. Every question was asking too much. 

My friends received short and snippy answers, and I weaved through the crowd to stay alone, clinging to the solitude instead of the moments happening around me.

 
The figure loomed.

It was there in the bathroom when I stood at the sink, splashing water on to my face as if I could have scrubbed the bad feeling off of my cheeks.

 
It was there in my words, broken and halfhearted as my thoughts kept returning to the figure. 

Why now? After all this time? They had all this time.

 
“Because anxiety doesn’t shrink,” I heard them say. “You do.”

Anxiety was standing in the corner of the room. It’s presence filled up every space. It made my hands shake at the dinner table and made it hard to grab onto anything tangible. Greg couldn’t snuff it out, and I couldn’t stop staring at it. I couldn’t clean it off of me, it white knuckled my shoulders so tightly that its fingernails dug deep into my collarbones.

 
The past few days, it has greeted me in the morning when my alarm goes off, and it follows me to bed each evening. It reminds me of the times I slept on my bathroom floor just to stop the hot shakes. It reminds me of how I have responsibilities now, people I love, a life I’m building– how I can’t leave those things to run from it. 

Anxiety rolls back down my throat like cigarettes smoke into my lungs. The words I write are tally marks on the walls of my mind, counting the days I’ve been trapped inside my own self.

 
And no job or sense of belonging leaves me feeling fulfilled and satisfied. No wedding planning hushes the dark words. These things are sweet ebenezers of God’s goodness in the midst of the battle, but yes, there is still a battle raging. I cannot ignore the clashing of swords happening around me or the gaping wounds in the pieces of me that have fallen beside me as I walk. 

After all this time, there just comes a point where you come to terms with the sense that anxiety leaves a hole that cannot be filled by success or love or crowded rooms full of people asking how you are and meaning it.

 
So I sit. I rest. I look around to see, to search. I listen in the quiet or in the noisy. I breathe– I take very intentional, deep breaths. And I rise.

I rise because I’ve got holy bones that have new breath on them. I rise because I’ve got heaven wrapped around and inside of me. I rise because I call my demons by their real names now so that I can point at them square in the face when they fill up their favorite hiding spots. I rise because I know there is such a place where anxiety cannot linger, a place where I will bow in the light instead of shrinking in the shadow.

 
Today, anxiety tells me that it doesn’t shrink– I do. 

And I thank God that this life is promised to only be a vapor. Because the anxiety can only last that long, too.

And that’s how I’ll breathe today.