Friday, September 08, 2017

Found

There are storms raging on our television screens, twitter feeds & facebook timelines 24/7 these days...Harvey, Irma, Jose. We are overwhelmed by photos of destruction, warnings of impending danger and shifting what-if scenarios.

Off the screens and in our real lives there are countless other storms brewing and wreaking havoc. I am surrounded by people experiencing soul crushing storms: illnesses, financial ruin, addiction, families in crisis.

And in my guest bedroom, there is Little Bit, a precious preschool aged foster child who has already experienced more loss and tragedy in her short life than my adult heart can comprehend.

It is really all so much. Yesterday it felt like too much. I was heavy, useless, walking around in a fog, lost in my own what-if scenarios, frustration with 'the system,' weariness at this sin-sullied world. The realization that I cannot fix any of it left this doer in an identity crisis of sorts.

As I talked about it off and on with God through the day, I felt led to call a prayer warrior from my church and vomit my worries and emotions. She responded by reading Psalms to me over the phone. When we hung up I read a few more in the quiet before beginning my afternoon carline drill.

As bedtime approached, Little Bit, normally an easy going, sweet and compliant child just started wailing. As I tried to nudge her through the bedtime routine, assuming it was exhaustion fueling her outburst, she started screaming, "On my inside, I just feel so much pain. It hurts so much I just want to scream." (Yes, those were the words of a preschooler!)

Keenly aware of my inability to fix,  I wrapped her wet, post bath body up in a towel and sat with her while she screamed. Perched on the toilet seat, I pulled her into my lap and started to rock. She asked if we could go rock "in a real chair" so we moved to the porch. After a few minutes of quiet, we returned to her bedroom. Getting her settled, I reached in a basket of books and pulled out Sally Lloyd-Jones' Found: Psalm 23. Psalms had ministered to me earlier that day, and it seemed a good choice for this moment.

Little Bit had never been to church before foster care. When I said the name Jesus to her a few days ago she asked "Who is he?" So as I read this paraphrased for children rendition of Psalm 23, beautifully illustrated with a little lamb and a tender shepherd who feeds, guides, protects and takes care, she hung on every word. This wasn't an old familiar story, it was a revelation.

In the center of the book, it says "Even when I walk through the dark, scary, lonely places I won't be afraid. Because my shepherd knows where I am. He is here with me."

As I read these lines Little Bit slapped her hand on the page, looked straight into my eyes and implored, "Is this real? Is this true?"
With a breath-taking realization that this was a sacred, important moment, I managed to squeeze out a "Yes. Yes, it IS true."
"Keep reading," she commanded.
"He keeps me safe. He rescues me. He makes me strong and brave."
She listened intently as I turned the page...


Look at that promise: He is getting things ready...just for this little lamb. And her heart that needed to scream because it was in so much pain? It is his desire to fill it with so much happiness it can't be held inside.

I was deeply convicted by how little faith I have had. I have been tied up in knots trying to make a plan for Little Bit's life---fearful of her spirit and heart being crushed by 'the system' rather than trusting her Creator.

And the final line? It says:
"Wherever I go I know...
God's Never Stopping
Never Giving Up
Unbreaking
Always and Forever Love
will go, too!"

In that moment I thought surely David wrote this Psalm so that Sally Lloyd-Jones and Jago would reproduce it JUST FOR THIS NIGHT.

We grown up Christians can make things so complicated--the Gospel is clear and true.

I am not the boss of anyone's life, but there is an AUTHOR, a RESCUER, a PERFECTER, a SHEPHERD.

He sees us in the dark nights of our pain. He knows what we need. He is trustworthy. He is indeed a very good shepherd.

"He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart." Isaiah 40:11a

I'm so grateful.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Night Before 7th Grade

Kate, Ryland & Parker,

Tomorrow morning the three of you will start your first day as 7th graders. This milestone feels huge to me. You are legitimately adolescents, at an age where I have vivid memories of the highs, lows and countless emotions and experiences in between. As I have started to share more of my own cringe-inducing middle school stories with you, my heart feels excitement, empathy and a bit of nervousness about all you will face in coming months and years.

As you know, your Dad and I seriously considered homeschooling this year. It feels like such a monumental time of growth and change that we wanted to spend as much of it as possible with you. In many ways, I think we wanted to delay your entry into the rapids of adolescence a bit longer--to make sure we had made enough deposits, to give you more grounding, to take you on more shared adventures. It was an idea we had nurtured since you were toddlers. Yet, as we prayed and made more concrete preparations God changed our hearts. He made it clear it was His Will for you to remain in your school environment and we are thrilled to see what is in store.

For what feels like at least the 10,000th time since you were born, we've let go of our plans in favor of His. It is with faith and butterflies we send you off tomorrow morning--into the storied awkwardness of 7th grade.  

As you go, I do have a couple of reminders and a promise:

As I've told you many times, this is a stage of life where you & your peers are all just trying to figure some things out. There will be bumps and bruises on the way to beautiful growth--but it is all an important part of the process. Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, the struggle is what strengthens your wings for flying. Give grace to yourself and your peers as you all simultaneously and individually work through the process. 

With hormones, changing relationships and the stress of increasing responsibilities remember to keep your perspective. Spend a few minutes every morning reflecting on who God is and how He loves you. Pause to breathe, look around at creation and remember the One who made it all also created you and has a place for you in it. 

Your identity as a beloved Child of God is not to be taken lightly. Don't let the world distract you from that basic notion-- so many of your future decisions will be best made through the lens of that one truth. 

And when things feel overwhelming ask yourself, what will I think about this situation tomorrow, next month, next year? It's funny how that seems to work for me even in middle age. 

Finally, know that your Dad and I adore you. You are each so uniquely designed and we are delighted to watch how God is working in your lives. We commit to continue to pray for you--and love it when you tell us specific things to cover. We pledge to make home a place of kindness and respect--a safe place to land and be recharged and encouraged even on the hard days. 

As you know well by now, I mess up a lot. I am learning how to parent middle schoolers even as you are learning how to be one. So, let's also remember to give each other the benefit of the doubt, believe the best and apologize quickly. Love covers a multitude of sins. 

Go get 'em, tigers!
-Mom

Saturday, July 29, 2017

What a week!

Our family had the privilege of serving last week at a Young Life camp in Arizona specifically tailored for teenagers with special needs.

There were a little over 400 people in camp with us split into four fairly even groups--25% were teenagers with special needs from Arizona, California, and Alaska. These needs ranged from physical issues such as amputations, wheelchair restriction, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment and blindness to emotional and intellectual differences. Another 25% of the attendees were volunteer leaders and staff from the campers' local areas. These adults were remarkable in their knowledge of each camper's needs and special qualities. They took incredible care of their friends--physically, emotionally and spiritually around the clock all week. An additional 100 high school students actually paid to travel and attend camp from Lafayette, Louisiana and Jackson, Mississippi as buddies--able bodied campers full of energy and friendship.

It thrilled me to watch these three distinct groups merge into one camp community. I can only imagine how exhausted the buddies and leaders were as they stayed fully present with the often unpredictable demands of their Capernaum friends, but you would never know it from their faces. I was particularly moved watching the 14-17 year old buddies as they left their 'cool' at the camp gate and fully engaged in whatever activities were happening--from Disney sing-alongs to dance parties and messy field games. They were "all in" to create a joy-filled experience for their new friends.

Behind the scenes were another 100 people--some Young Life employees, but mostly volunteers--cooking, cleaning, running sound, lights, laundry, crafts and grounds keeping--all so these Capernaum friends could have an excellent camp experience full of joy and fun that pointed to the extravagant love of our Father in Heaven.

It was a true blessing to see 'behind the curtain' the outrageous lengths people were willing to go to for these kids. Chariots (complete with shock absorbers) were constructed for use in yard games so wheelchair bound campers weren't left out. A forklift was customized to safely transport campers with physical limitations to the top of the zip line and the water slide. Earplugs were available everywhere for attendees whose sensory processing issues made sound a challenge. Multiple sign language interpreters were on site so hearing impaired campers didn't miss a joke! Even the kitchen staff, who had to provide sustenance for over 400, modified their menus for the week to deliver quality meals that respected the gluten/dairy/nut/vegan tolerance levels of campers.

I wept more times than I can count as camp became a microcosm of the life God intended for us to have--so many people with various gifts serving together with one goal in mind. No job felt more or less important. We all had the same objective but knew it required many different types of service. Patience and kindness abounded and we all worked together to say YES to removing barriers between kids and the abundant life of the Gospel.

Each of my children were able to find their unique niche as well. One became a game room staple using the gift of play to connect and forge friendships. Another worked closely with my husband in the medical office, using encouragement and resourcefulness to support hurting kids. Yet another used his own loves of swimming and dancing to find ways to engage campers and leaders. I found myself watching, praying and actively asking "what do you have for me to do or see or say right now, Lord?" (It was such a refreshing, purposeful and expectant way to live!)

Empathy is a characteristic we've been actively seeking to encourage in our children...not sympathy or condescension, but true practice in relating to people in different circumstances. This week delivered constant opportunities to do so in a fun and meaningful way.

All in all this was a remarkable week--restorative, challenging and tremendously encouraging on many levels. I was shown that there are actually many pieces of this week that can translate into my 'real life' at home. I hope to live with a more simplified sense of purpose, a renewed appreciation for community and a glorious picture of  the beauty of the body of Christ working together.

I was reminded that working with people with special needs gives a unique opportunity to know a person's challenges and address them directly. Dealing with 'typically developing' people can sometimes be more difficult because we don't all wear our real challenges on our sleeves. The ministry of daily life is to remember everyone has limps, scars and limitations in this life and we would do well to recognize them with a compassion and a commitment to removing barriers that keep people from the abundant life of the cross.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Hardest Part

When we were preparing to open our home to foster children, I prayed daily over the bedroom where these children would sleep. Each time a car pulled in my driveway to introduce a new friend to our family I knew deep in my soul this was a child for whom I had prayed long before I knew their name. As I bathed, tucked in, and tended each child, I wondered how long they would be part of our life. Even though we are not pursuing adoption, I allowed myself to wonder with each individual child if they might become a permanent part of our family. Much like a school girl with a crush, I'd whisper their names with Scott on the end. It wasn't a wish or a prayer as much as an acknowledgment that God--not us--held the future--and anything could happen.

In the last two years of fostering, we have had five school aged children in our home for periods ranging from 10 days to 17 months. Twice, we have had the difficult task of requesting a child be removed and placed elsewhere. It is not a part of the fostering process that anyone likes to discuss, but it is a reality I felt led to write about--if for no other reason than to quiet some of the self talk running through my brain at 2am.

It is a difficult reality to admit. My family enjoys challenges. We believe in grace and second chances.  Neither of us considers human beings items that can or should be "traded in" when the going gets tough. We are not shocked easily. We don't want to raise bubble wrapped children and we certainly never entered into foster care thinking we would "give up" on a child--especially ones who had already been let down by the adults in their early lives.

Early neurological development is impacted by life experience, disruptions to bonding by being moved around, witnessing and experiencing violence and even highly stressful pregnancies. All of these things are outside of the control of a child--and yet, their behavior is impacted in ways they can't just "straighten up." You cannot discipline and correct a child of trauma with the same methods that worked for your non-traumatized children.

Sometimes the behavior is such that even with knowledge of the reasons behind it, a family cannot tolerate it. For safety's sake, every heart and developing life in a home has to be considered.


I deeply believe in the need for loving, stable foster families and gulp hard when I write about the challenges. I do not ever want my words to be used to justify someone's decision to turn the other way and ignore the plight of the orphans among us. I do, however, think it is vital that people understand the deep and real challenges of this system. I trust that God will continue to call people to this work not because they've been shown only a rosy view.

It is frequently generational cycles of sin that result in children coming into care. Those of us on the frontlines of this ministry are also plagued with sins of fear, pride, self-reliance, and greed. Sinners helping sinners in a sinful world. Of course, it is broken!

Both times we have requested removal it has been with an overwhelming sense that we could not serve the therapeutic needs of the child and the others in our home as well. Both decisions have held a moment of eyeball to eyeball unity with my husband. Each time as the child was driven away, I have cried tears of loss, resignation, regret, shame, and relief.

Even knowing the intimate details of our situations and trusting the wise counsel of those who agreed with our moves, I cannot help but feel ashamed that we couldn't 'cut it,' fear that maybe it wasn't really that we 'couldn't' but instead that we simply wouldn't. I've had to lay down a Messiah complex I can be reluctant to admit. I'm realizing this work is sometimes a marathon and other times more like a relay. We aren't always called to cross the finish line, but instead to merely run the baton for our leg.

As I've processed some of my disappointment, I've recognized my preference to 'lick my wounds' privately--reserving the exposure of my vulnerabilities to only a few. I tend to shout from the rooftops when life is good and go quiet when I'm wrestling. May we never forget there is a deep blessing in the wrestling as well.

This is the part of the journey that has stretched and grown us most--especially in our reliance on the Lord instead of the opinions of others or our own wisdom and life experience. Each time has been a great humbling, but also a reminder that following God where He leads means letting go of the cleaner/neater/more flattering-to-our-own-image story we would write. I am reminded that God uses it all--every broken and confusing piece.

This is real life. This is where growth happens.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Checking In & Catch Up

I never intended to let so much time pass before checking in...and now it seems there is so much going on that I do not know how to catch up. Because the intent of this blog is chronicling for posterity as much as anything else, I fear I must resort to hastily recorded bullet points!

It is the second week of May and somehow my children are two weeks away from becoming teenagers and the completion of their first year of middle school. I haven't been able to really process this passage of time in a meaningful way, but I am definitely "in the thick of" watching their strengths and struggles reveal themselves and leaning hard into the Lord for wisdom on what coaching is necessary when--and how to continue to make home a safe place where they are free to truly relax and feel loved and built up to return to the arena of life.

I am pleased with where they are, who they are now and the tiny glimpses I get into the possibilities of where they are heading. But I am also grateful we have 6 more years together! As the clock's ticking gets louder I am increasingly aware we cannot teach them everything or launch them as perfect adults--we must narrow down our objectives to include lifelong skills like seeking truth, building strong community, and faith in their loving, Sovereign God. (Much easier to write in a sentence than to implement line upon line into human lives.)

Our family has changed a lot recently. I accidentally ran over our beloved pet cat in the driveway a couple of weeks ago. It was truly horrific. The accident, the dealing with the aftermath as I was home alone, the telling of my husband and children, and the grief. Through it all there were powerful lessons about telling the truth--even when it is hard, and the beautiful grace and comfort my children and husband offered to me despite their own sadness.

About a week and a half after the accident, my children gifted me with a kitten for Mother's Day. A couple of days after that we welcomed a new foster child into our family-- a delightful, fun and high energy 6 year old boy.

As I type this we are on our 5th day together. Much like a 2nd or 3rd time mother, it seems this transition has been smoother than the previous ones--largely because we have been here before and can recognize many parts of the situation as simply being phases--we know they can/will pass with time and investment. I have also learned to love hard and laugh often. It feels smoother to not be dramatically rising and falling with every extreme high and low.

This week we had our first court hearing. It was scheduled to begin at 9am, but we sat in the hallway waiting for almost 3 hours due to a delay. Directly across from me was a darker skinned woman with a familiar face. After about an hour we recognized each other as the biological Mom and the right-now Mom of the same precious little boy. Our affinity for one another was immediate and we spent the next hour and a half getting to know each other and discussing our shared young man. I don't know where this is all heading, but what a blessing to begin with a face to face, heart-to-heart. I was able to assure her that we are not trying to "take" her boy and we want nothing more than for them to become a healthy family again. This relationship is beginning as a partnership--not us versus her, but both of us for HIM. I pray it continues.

I also pray he learns to sleep. We are on a newborn schedule with multiple wake ups each night and days that begin before 5am.

Little man is calling so this is all for now...

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Our Holy Land Experience: Bethlehem, Shepherds' Fields, Palestine

Our first destination Wednesday was Bethlehem, located in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank.) Influenced by our previous visit to a small village in Palestine and Christmas carols describing Bethlehem a "little town," I was surprised to find multi-story buildings and strong Western influences in this city of Jesus' birth.

Our large tour bus was parked on a city street and we walked up to the Church of the Nativity, a basilica built over the cave where it is believed Jesus was born. Yes, cave! One of the interesting things we learned is that Mary & Joseph most likely found lodging in a cave, not a wooden stable structure like we see so prevalently represented in modern Christmas. The prevalence of caves in this region makes this assertion much easier to imagine. These caves were the places many families (and shepherds) used for shelter of their animals at night. 

In order to enter the Church of the Nativity, patrons must bow down and walk through the Door of Humility. It is the only entrance and despite more practical historical explanations of the reason the door is so small, the act of going low in order to enter was not lost on me. 

Despite the simplicity outside, there is much activity (adornments, people, lines) inside. After waiting our turn, we were able to crouch down and touch the 14 point silver star that is placed over the Grotto of the Nativity--the place it is widely held that Jesus was born.


As we exited the place, I struggled with the fact that the very tourism that allowed us to visit this spot, has also made this once simple place so overdone. Next to elaborate ancient candelabra were modern heat lamps, and inside massive chandeliers were spiral shaped, energy efficient bulbs. The contrast really spoke to me about how humans can take the simple, holiest truths and overdress them with our excessive interventions.

After the church, our tour guide took us to the much more serene Shepherds Fields. Here he sought to explain the likely conditions of Jesus' birth in a much more contextual way. 

As we entered a real ancient cave (one of many) we were treated to a powerful lesson about shepherds. We also saw a stone manger that animals would have used to eat from while in the shelter of a cave. It was surreal to imagine a baby safely placed here to sleep.



After so much talk of 'ancient stones,' it was time to go and meet living stones. We drove a very short distance to a nearby resort to see Young Life ministry in action. This hotel is used to bring over 800 students and families to camp each year. We were greeted with camp-style welcome complete with drums, men in costume and smiling faces.

There is a large swimming pool with colorful water slides and even an astroturf field. As a striking reminder that life here is quite different than our own, high fences stood along the property edge separating this place from a Jewish settlement on the other side.


In addition to our group, there were 20-30 people from a state run orphanage for children who had been abandoned by their families due to special needs. As we played games, danced, sang and enjoyed lunch together I was moved to tears repeatedly. THIS is exactly the kind of place where Jesus would be with the most marginalized of the marginalized....in a Middle Eastern village surrounded by orphans with special needs and their caretakers. There were even physical fences surrounding us as a reminder. By many accounts these people were not good for much in the world--and yet these are exactly who He tells us to love. What a humbling privilege!

I will never forget this day!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Our Holy Land Experience: Old Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Holocaust Museum, Western Wall


Tuesday morning we explored the Old City of Jerusalem, a relatively small area that houses much history, culture and significance within its ancient walls. First, we visited the Christian Quarter (home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre).


When we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the prominently displayed presence of a bomb disposal container was a reminder that we were indeed in a land that has seen countless violent threats for generations. 

While in the Christian Quarter we were also able to go inside the area where many families live. Our tour guide was raised in this environment and was able to deftly navigate the alleys and corridors to take us 'behind the scenes' where children's toys were scattered and clothing was on the line--life amidst the historical stones.


As we entered the Muslim Quarter there was an energy shift. It was full of people and markets overflowing with rich colors and smells. We sampled delicious olives--and candy!
From Old Jerusalem, we traveled a short distance to the Garden of Gethsemane. Here we learned that the name Gethsemane is derived from the words for "olive press." as out tour guide Andre pointed out "when we are pressed, we pray." 

I had been warned the small size of this garden would surprise me. What I did not expect was the overt tourism on display as crowds encircled this small fenced in plot. As dozens and their tour guides bustled around the lot as if it were an exhibit on display, it was difficult to find prayerful stillness. It was a stark contrast to the peaceful, lush, quiet, personal place of reflection I had envisioned. However, we were delighted to find that just across the street was a private section surrounded by stone walls, available for entrance and reflection. Our group gained admittance and was able to have a short service of praise and worship before scattering around the garden to pray in this serene place. 
While the olive trees we sat under and against are not 2000 years old, they have been carbon dated as some of the oldest ever discovered--over 1000 years old! They are likely descendants of the shoots of the original trees that grew in this area. 

My personal faith doesn't lead me to conclude anything magical happened simply by praying in this place. Nevertheless, it was powerful to envelop myself in the sights, sounds, and context of Jesus' prayer vigil here before he was handed over to the authorities for crucifixion. I was challenged anew to consider the depth of His surrender and the eternal implications (and daily call) in my own life and I was truly filled with purposeful peace.

Our afternoon consisted of a solemn visit to the Holocaust Museum. We discovered after we exited that the age restriction for the museum was 16 years and up--but the kids handled it with remarkable maturity. My husband wisely paced our one hour visit so that the first 50 minutes were spent understanding the build up/causes of the Holocaust. We rushed through the graphic portions of the exhibits, but lingered in sections that focused on the survivor stories. We solemnly attempted to absorb this horrible period in World History. Although we came to the Holy Land to see the places, God continued to remind me of all we could learn from its people.

We returned the Jewish Quarter at night to explore the underground tunnels and pray at the Western Wall. Perhaps it was because of the lights on the wall against the darkness and the prominent Israeli flag--but standing in the prayer plaza was a surreal experience. 

Women did not have to cover their heads, but men did. Apparently, any head covering will do, so while Parker and big Ryland had to don yarmulkes RyGuy's Northface baseball camp was deemed perfectly acceptable.
There was a divider in the prayer plaza that sorted women to the right and men to the left--as the two genders were not permitted to pray together at the wall. Kate and I entered the women's area clutching small slips of paper with our prayer requests to leave there between the stones. 

As we took our turn praying here, the spot believed to be the closest one can get to the Temple Mount, we were surrounded by devoutly religious people experiencing the Wall in different, demonstrative ways. As many around us rocked, cried, prayed and covered their faces with holy texts, I felt a bit uncertain. I looked over at Kate who seemed to be having the same uneasiness. As we walked away I realized it was because I didn't feel I had to travel across the world to a stone wall to feel like the Lord heard more prayers. I rejoiced that Jesus tore down the wall between us and God so we can speak to Him with the same intimacy in our bathroom shower in Georgia as at this historical place. 

After a 13 hour day of touring, we returned to our hotel this night with MUCH to process!