Monday, September 19, 2016

Love in the Trenches

I have a back-to-school tradition of hibernating...the twitchiness from tasks left undone that plagued the last month of Summer is addressed by manic sorting, organizing and purging. After three weeks and several carloads of garbage bags filled with donations, it finally feels as if I can reengage with the broader world.

 As the dust has begun to settle from Summer to Fall transition, I have been able to spend time in real conversation with a dozen different Mom friends--the kind where we aren't interrupted every couple of minutes by needs for ice cream, bottom wiping or to be an audience for the latest tumbling or diving board trick. The kind of conversations where we can have unbroken eye contact that sees, hears and feels enough to share what is really going on.

In doing so my heart has been moved by the heaviness that so many in my community carry. As most of my Mom friends are now parenting kids over the age of 12, I have a new understanding of the addage "little people, little problems...big people, big problems."

A friend and I were discussing the difference in our parenting topics now versus 8-10 years ago when she asked if I remembered the her son's trouble in pre-K. "My greatest parenting woe was how to effectively discipline him for sliding into circle time everyday. We had teacher conferences about his baseball slides!"

We laughed and admitted it had appropriately mattered then. It was an entrance into the world of teaching self control and respect for authority. Those same issues are relevant today--they just look so much different.

The coffees, walks, small group conversations, lunches and phone calls I have shared with tween and teen Mamas this month have covered the gamut:
- diagnoses of anxiety and depression and gut wrenching choices about the trade offs of medicating these issues
- behavioral disorders
- teenage dating and sex
- divorce, remarriage, blending kids
- sexting
- bullying and being left out
- hormonal teens that are being truly hurtful to their family
- experimenting with different identities and being heartbroken in the process

These aren't other people's kids. These are young adults whose baptisms I have attended and made pledges to love and help rear. They are the offspring of friends whose marriages I stood up in and committed to support. These are the struggles of families like mine raising people in the world I live in.

It makes my heart ache to hear the painful things so many of my friends are walking through. And this is just in the parenting realm! Add on the additional pressures of marriage, work, finances, extended family, health concerns and it could easily be a recipe for despair.

As a woman in my Bible Study announced succinctly last week: "It is hard to be human."

THIS IS WHY we must stay plugged into our friendships and our faith. This world is broken, but we are not alone.

We must each tap into the truth God has given us in His Word that His Grace is sufficient. His power is made perfect in weakness. He will not leave or forsake us. We need to engage in loving community that reminds each other of these truths when we are tired.

A wise friend told me that regret haunts us with "if only" and anxiety gets us stuck with "what if?"
I believe peace in the Lord asks "what now?"

Foster parenting has taught me much about loving where you are with whatever time you have--no guarantees for tomorrow, but responsibility for what is in front of you now.

“The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day." Eugene Peterson

You are a parent, but the outcome is not all on you.
Your job is to show up faithfully and ask God to answer: "What does love require of me?"
Not tomorrow, not next week, but NOW--in this situation with what I know and what I have, what does LOVE require of me here?
Be present and teachable, one step at a time.
Do the next right thing.
Fueled not by the exhaustible resource of ourselves, but filled by the love of the Lord and the fruit of the Spirit.

I firmly believe God will meet you there, because He is doing it for me with my fosters and my biological children.

It is not a promise of the avoidance of pain, but there IS freedom here.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pressing Pause

I had planned to start writing much more regaularly once all our children were back in school. With more quiet hours on my hands, I had hoped to start sorting through the many thoughts that have flooded my heart and mind in recent months. 

Instead, I have gone quiet--listening, reading, talking to other women. In the processs, I have realized the more in the thick of life I am, the less able I am to write a cohesive post. This seems largely due to my desire to wrap things up in neat compartmentalized packages. 

In pondering this phenomena, I realized some people write to sort through their feelings...but I seem to do so more as an opportunity to plant flags and mark lessons I am learning. As I have gotten older, I have become leery of speaking too soon--aware that most lessons evolve over time. While I do believe there is purpose to everything under heaven, four decades have taught me that what we generally jump to first as the reason from a particular season, is often just the beginning. 

And, frankly, my greatest personal headlines at the moment are intricately linked to other people's stories in a way that makes it impossible for me to share 'truth' without telling more than what is mine. 

There are many loose ends at the moment. Too much for this overthinker to summarize. Impossible to turn into simple lessons. 

So, rather than hover as an observer--or use words to put things in tidy and oversimplified boxes, I am attempting to be present without reporting. Pay attention. Show up. 

I hope the writing comes--because I don't want to forget. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Riding the Roller Coaster

I have been staring at the computer screen this morning--typing and backspacing--attempting to chronicle and process the last few days.

At our last family court hearing in July we were told our foster daughters would have a decisive court date in October. My bio family and I discussed finishing strong and being intentional with the remaining weeks. Last Friday morning I asked each of the triplets to tell me one lesson/truth they hoped the girls would leave our home with and think about how they could personally emphasize that in the next two months. It was therapuetic to feel like we were working through a transition plan.

That very afternoon, as I pulled my car into the pick up line at the girls' school I received a phone call informing me that the court date had been bumped up 6 weeks to this Wednesday--and it would likely be a final hearing with the children leaving from the court house for permanency with a family member.


Suddenly, our last 6.5 weeks had been reduced to 5 days (two of which would have the girls away on a weekend family visit.) We were stunned. The neat and tidy transition plan imploded. While we dealt with a tide of conflicting emotions and concerns, we adjusted our sails. Saturday to Tuesday were spent processing, praying, preparing, making memories and dealing with anxious/excited/conflicted hearts.

Although there was a strong chance the girls would be leaving Wednesday, there was still a possibility they would not. This hearing would involve a new judge and a newly appointed attorney representing the girls' interests. With so many variables, we were advised to be ready for anything. Obviously, this is much easier said than done when dealing with such a deeply emotional set of circumstances.

Practically speaking, the girls' family visit over the weekend allowed me to pack several tubs of their belongings. I hid them behind a sofa in our seldom used formal living room--lest their presence add to the anxiety. Two empty containers stood at the ready for last minute packing of daily items and in season school clothes.

We were covered in prayer, love and support by friends and church members. There was a supernatural peace as we put one foot in front of the other walking in faith.

Monday I felt led to call the family member who is seeking to adopt the children to discuss our long term roles in their lives. I respect her position as their forever Mom and hoped she would see fit for us to be involved as extended family and support. I took a deep breath and asked her if she intended our goodbye to be forever or merely a change in role.

We spent 20 minutes talking. It was a positive conversation. I felt peace that despite how emotionally taxing this chapter happens to be, God's Hand is all over it.

On Tuesday morning the girls prepared for what might be their last day at their current school. How do you say goodbye as a child when you are not even sure if it is truly farewell?

During breakfast, our 5 year old GiGi ate the last of her favorite "ham" (which is actually turkey but that's another story.) She asked me to buy more at the grocery store that day. I had a strange moment of realizing she would likely not be around to eat it--and pondering whether to buy it in faith or not do so in reason.

Nevertheless, after dropping all the children at school and meeting a friend for coffee, I found myself at Publix buying GiGi's ham, Bug's favorite comfort food (chicken pot pie), and ice cream sandwiches as a coping mechanism for myself. After a bit of stress eating in the grocery store parking lot I went home to pack the girls' overnight bag, wrapping it in a black garbage bag in the trunk of my car so as not to visually trigger anxiety. It would be there 'just in case' but no one had to know.

Around noon I received a phone call that court had been postponed six weeks--to the original October date. Ironically, the call was not from an official source, but rather from the family member seeking custody. Yet another wink to the partnership in the interest of the children I felt being slowly formed. We were able to strategize on how and what to tell the children.

I removed the duffel from my car, put the nice clothes that had already been selected for court back in the closet, unpacked the duffel and tried to process feelings with a heart suffering from whiplash. I drove to school to tell Bug--so she would not spend her last hour telling people goodbye, only to show back up at 7:50 this morning.

Yesterday afternoon was full of conversations--in school lunchrooms, carlines and around the kitchen table--with foster daughters, bio kids, case workers, teachers, school counselors, others who have become like family to our girls...then we went to the pool, ate dinner outside and tried to restore some normalcy at bedtime.

Clearly, there is more to this chapter. Love to be given. Hearts to be shepherded. Lessons for all involved to learn.

There is no tidy bow to tie this all up in, because real life is often not neat and pretty. Real hearts, fears, hopes are involved. But it is surprisingly OK and it will be well in the end.

Last week I read this and it just keeps bouncing around my spirit:

Living in the will of God is more about knowing and trusting his specific promises than receiving specific direction (Hebrews 11:8). It’s more about resting in his sovereignty than wrestling with my ambiguity (Psalm 131:1–2) I’ve learned and continue to learn that embracing God’s will for me largely consists in transferring my confidence from my own minuscule capacity to understand what’s going on and why to God’s omniscient and completely wise understanding (Proverbs 3:5–6) Jon Bloom "You Don't Have to Know God's Will" 

I do not know what God is up to--but as I told nine year old Bug this morning--this cake isn't ready to come out of the oven. It needs a bit more time. As I was writing this post, I got up to pour a glass of tea and walked by a wall of virtues and verses I posted some time ago for the kids. Two words commanded my attention...Patience and Courage...

Our job is to not rush or impede God's timing, but to patiently walk through what He allows each day.

May we do so with courage-- eyes and hearts wide open--for whatever is to come.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Ticking Clock

Yesterday my trio started middle school. By all accounts it was a great day. We love our school. I had peace in my heart that they were in a safe place with people who love and know them and are invested in their development.

I teared up just a little as I drove out of carline--middle school parents don't walk students in or linger, I was told. (Thankfully, I took our traditional photos at home beforehand.)

As I returned to my very quiet home and an unrushed second cup of coffee I heard the ticking of a clock. I had not been aware of it this Summer--despite the fact that the sound is always there. The clock is not new, neither is the passage of time, but it cannot always be heard amidst the 'life sounds' of a busy household.

I think this is why quiet is so important and simultaneously startling. It allows the waves of thoughts kept at bay to rush in. When we slow down and pay attention we notice the inches grown, the size of the shoes at the base of the stairs, the new wrinkles on our faces and the ticking of time.

While none of us are guaranteed tomorrow, a basic tenet of 'responsible' parenting is beginning with the end in mind.  One of the hardest parts of foster parenting has been the unknown length of stay. How long do we have to invest in these children?

It has been a growing, stretching, challenging experience to parent one day/week/month at a time. I've realized that this is one of the great sanctifying aspects of this experience for me--learning to walk in faithful obedience to the task at hand, allowing God to be master of the outcome. Although the practical lesson has been with my foster children, it has significantly shaped the way I now view parenting my biological offspring as well.

As I was pondering all this yesterday I realized my trio has seven school years left at home. Our latest timetable with our foster children indicates we likely have about seven more weeks with them before they move on to their permanent home.

The girls are set to begin weekly overnight visits to their home in a few days. They are excited and my family feels peace that it is time. But, honestly, it feels a bit like a divorce. The girls' ties to us have to begin loosening to make room for other bonding. Emotions are unpredictable and all over the place.

My heart is just beginning to grasp that after 17 months of parenting Bug and 10 months with little GiGi they will no longer call me Mom. But, the work here is not yet done. God, in His sovereignty, still has these girls in this home for a few more weeks--my trio, God willing, for seven more years--and I am praying for the strength to be faithful until the end.

When I stop and ponder how little time I have left, there is a temptation to panic. So many lessons remain. How much more can I cram in the allotted time? As performance anxiety looms, I can't escape that both of my parenting-in-my-home 'finish lines' were sevens. Seven, after all, is a symbolic number used throughout the Bible.

As I studied about the Biblical significance this morning I couldn't help but smile. "Seven signifies a completion of some kind: a divine mandate is fulfilled." None of our earthly timelines panic our Father--and I am not called to complete anybody. I am called to be faithful and leave the results up to Him.

This is just a chapter...but what a deep, significant, life altering one it has been for us all. I am weary, but standing on His promises, trusting Him to breathe fresh wind in my sails to finish strong.

"He who began a good work...will be faithful to complete it.." Philippians 1:6

"He will sustain you to the end..." I Corinthians 1:8a


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Seaglass & My Middle Aged Manifesto

We have a lot going on in our family life. Because this is a public space and the stories are not entirely mine to tell, I will spare the details--suffice it to say, there are many stressors and lots of complicated issues. I have no doubt it will all work itself out. I am not afraid. It is just A LOT.

A couple of weeks ago, we were able to enjoy a week of respite in Maine visiting Ryland's sister and her family. Before I was a foster parent, I didn't 'get' respite. Honestly, I thought it was a bit heartless to leave your foster kids behind and draw such a blatant circle around your bio family. After a week away, I have a different perspective. This is 24/7 ministry. We are not an adoptive family. Rest and sabbatical are good for everyone. It was like a glorious weeklong date with my family--reconnecting with my first loves. Our foster daughters also had a great week with a local family who honored their 'staycation' with fun experiences and memories.  

Each day in Maine we would explore the rocky, shell-filled shores of Penobscot Bay. Among the many treasures we collected I found myself drawn to the sea glass. Growing up on the sandy beaches of Florida, I haven't had much experience with sea glass before this trip. Here at 41 it made quite an impression.

If you are unfamiliar with the term, sea glass is the product of broken pieces of regular glass (largely from discarded bottles) that have been tumbled and ground by the ocean over time. The result is that sharp edges are rounded out to have a smoother appearance and feel. Additionally, the glass' original slick and clear surface is replaced by a frosty opaque look.

As I collected handfuls I thought about how reflective this glass felt of my own heart and opinions in middle age.

I was once bold, certain, and confidently opinionated about most things. The world was black and white. I loved talk radio. I got most of my information from only one or two sources. I was quick to discount people who had differing views. Like glass that has just found its way into the vast ocean I was clear and sharp.

But now, life experience has tumbled and ground my worldview. I am being sanctified by a variety of relationships and experiences.

A close friend confided her abortion years ago--how the protestors banging on her car with handwritten signs calling her a murderer did more harm than good to her fragile faith. I have seen firsthand the fallout in her life and the years it took for her to really see and know the heart of God. I am still pro-life--I just think the answers require more work than most people want to do. Her lack of resources, desperation, fear and belief that she had no other options weren't going to be solved by people screaming at her.

I have developed friendship/mentorships with a couple of ex-prostitutes and drug addicts. In hearing their stories, I began to understand how untreated mental health issues and past abuse put people on a path most of us cannot begin to imagine. Easy to judge, much more difficult to walk with a person as they attempt to rebuild a personal life after decades of shambles.

I've had long, tearful conversations over the course of years of friendship with a woman of color I adore. Our sons love each other and on paper are growing up with very similar lives. Yet, I am painfully aware there are conversations she has to have that have never occurred to me--about hoodies on dark nights or how to handle themselves at traffic stops.

A family member came out as gay and then transgender. Ironically, this person rejected me for being a conservative that might judge before I had ever said a word.

I became a foster parent and found one of the sweetest rewards to be the relationship I have developed with the bio Mom whose rights have been terminated. She is unable to be a good mother, but she is honest and brave--with a heart that longs to be healed and whole spiritually while owning up to the many decisions that got her to this place of brokenness and loss. In the beginning of this journey, I was so angry with the 'her' I imagined, but now I pray for the her I have grown to know through our letters.

I don't just read or listen to one perspective anymore. I seek out books that shine light in corners I've not had to live in myself. The result? I have far less opinions than ever before. I find it difficult to find a simple answer to much of anything.

What once felt so clear has become more obscure.

Before you write me off as a fallen Christian who has abandoned truth...hear me: My core commitment to Jesus and the Word of God stands. In most of the scenarios I have described above, I believe there is a great deal of brokenness as a result of not persuing God's rightesouness and 'best.'

Jesus is still my anchor. He is my worldview. As I have followed Him to this place in life, I have begun to think it is often laziness that cause us to feel so clearly about things--not our actual faith.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1 KJV 

What if it was never God's intention for us to have all the answers and strong opinions? What if, instead, He wanted us to become OK with being refined by the mighty ocean of life and the crashing waves and sand of the circumstances He allows to impact our lives? Truthfully, I find myself required to rely on the Lord a whole lot more since I have stopped 'knowing' everything.

 At present we are men looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God now knows me! I Corinthians 13:12 (Phillips) 

I want to know. I want to understand--but mostly I want to be found faithful more than I want to be right. God willing I still have a lot of years here on Earth and much more refining to do.

He has shown you, O man, what is good.  
And what does the Lord require of you? 
But to do justly, 
to love mercy, 
and to walk humbly with your God. 
Micah 6:8

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Over the Waterfall

I have spent the last year of my life tangled up in a myriad of emotions as our life changed by becoming a foster family. As I sought to find footing in this new territory I found my heart colliding with a sticky spider web of complicated feelings: commitment, fatigue, fear, vulnerability, frustration, tenderness, guilt, passion, protectiveness and love.

The most complex emotional terrain, by far, has been the effort to shepherd the hearts in my home--to simultaneously attempt to give our our little girls space to reclaim childhood and be free of the very adult drama that led them here, to protect my marriage from the effects of being disconnected and overextended and to allow my tweens to engage their hearts in the rebuilding of these girls' lives, while leaving lasting impressions on their own. It has been all encompassing. In the midst of all this other work, there hasn't been much time to reflect on my own heart. Lack of time and energy for the task has made my ability to compartmentalize a gift.

Instead of fretting, I have put my head down and tried to simply get it done--this work of loving with my life--keeping everyone alive, clothed, in school and emotionally stable until the next court date.

Like a woman longing to conceive, my emotions rose and fell based on dates on the calendar-except unlike my fertility journey, these dates were about 3 months apart and based on court hearings instead of pregnancy tests.

We've had five court dates in 13 months and the 'finish line' for our girls case gets moved farther out each time. Recently, I was informed of yet another change in the expected timeline (which I am learning is about as reliable as the NORAD Santa tracker in predicting the exact time the man in red will leave gifts under the tree.) While we've become accustomed to days becoming weeks, this new timeline stretched things at least 6 more months.

With this recent news a funny thing happened, the finish line finally got moved so far out of sight it was no longer my focus. I felt lighter because deep in my heart there was a peace that said, "Now you can stop thinking about the ending and just focus on today." (Can I get an Amen?)

This realization brought unexpected sweet relief, because it has allowed me to not feel like I am living out of a temporary emotional suitcase anymore--always on the ready with my "go bag." Taking my eyes off the end has freed me up to unpack some emotional baggage I wasn't fully aware I was carrying and just get comfortable here.

If the predicted timeline holds true, we will have had these girls 12 months and 19 months when it is time to depart. This is a significant chapter of their childhood and my family's life. Self protection is of no avail. It is going to hurt. But, I don't want to live in self-erected towers of preservation built out of deeply rooted fear any more--they are an exhausting, isolating illusion.

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.” -Frederick Buechner

I was talking to a friend yesterday about how much freedom I feel now that I can admit I am the person in the barrel absolutely heading over the waterfall. There is no exit ramp. I am going--so I might as well throw my head back and open my eyes wide. She replied: "You can go mad or go glad, but either way you are going." We laughed a little harder than we probably should have, because life has taught us both the bittersweet truth of that statement.

Right about this same time our 5 year old has started hugging me tightly at random times throughout the day and saying, "I love you soooo much and will miss you when I leave." She's not tearful, just truthful. I hug her back and say, "Me too, but you aren't leaving today so let's fill each other up with love and cuddles until you do." We hug and giggle because this surprisingly simple approach brings us both peace.

We can't control or predict the future, but we can live, love and laugh HERE in the NOW.

As if on cue, I read this devotion from Sarah Young's Jesus Calling last week, "Don't take yourself or your circumstances so seriously. Relax and know that I am God with you.When you desire my will above all else, life becomes much less threatening. Stop trying to monitor my responsibilities--things that are beyond your control. Find freedom by accepting the limits of your domain..."

It is a lesson that extends far beyond our foster care experience into many other aspects of life and relationship. This world is broken. We will get hurt. Go mad or go glad? The choice is yours.

"She is clothed in strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come..." Proverb 31:25

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Love in Real Life

A couple of weeks ago I was in a bookstore with my children when the young couple caught my eye.

It was the sound of their laughter that first attracted my attention. The way they leaned into each other around an oversized book he was holding drew me in. The couple, in their early twenties were standing in front of the pet books, arms interlocked and heads tilted close enough to almost touch as they giggled over a large dog encyclopedia. I observed them long enough to watch them settle down at a table in the Starbucks cafe and flip leisurely through the pages--talking excitedly about the pros and cons of various breeds of dogs. 

I confess I was a bit more of a stalker than I intended to be, but I couldn't stop watching them. The whole scene tapped into something bittersweet in my heart--reminding me of the hours Ryland and I spent during our engagement and first year of marriage discussing our ideal dog. We hovered over our large desktop PC in our Virginia apartment many nights after work before finally selecting our chocolate lab, Haley (who turns 13 years old in a few weeks.)

As I stood in line waiting for my coffee, I wondered what it was about this particular scene that caused such a twinge in my heart. I realized it was the time and space to just sit in a coffee shop together and dream about the future that seemed so far away from my current reality. 

We are a couple of decades ahead of those dreamers--in our 40s with five children, in the midst of living many of the things we once merely planned. Ryland & I do intentionally seek out time together as a couple, but increasingly when we manage to squeeze in a date night it feels like we are "on the clock" with a sitter or reactively working through an agenda of "must discuss" items.
I love my life as a mother. There are so many deep, rich, stretching, beautiful elements of this crazy ride. But still, I really wanted to pull a chair up next to this cute couple and tell them to savor these days--the ones where you can finish a conversation without interruptions over perceived emergencies like missing shoes, someone hurting feelings with a mere look or batteries that need recharging.  I wanted to tell them to enjoy the lingering and the ability to actually look at each other's faces when you speak. We are so often in divide and conquer mode that I forget to simply make eye contact with the man who holds my heart. 

Last Saturday while our oldest four were away at church camp, dear friends hosted our five year old for the night. Ryland & I had exactly 24 hours together at home with no children. We made grand plans to travel to Nashville for an exciting event with one of my favorite authors, but scrapped it so we could just hit pause, stay home and reconnect. We realized we had never spent a night home without our children--we always leave them here and go (run!) away to reconnect.

During our staycation, we ate grown up food, tackled overdue projects, thoroughly cleaned my suburban and most importantly, finished every conversation we started. At one point as we stood among the gravel of our half completed driveway (not exactly the epicenter of romance) and were able to actually talk through the details of the project as opposed to being in constant reactive mode, Ryland released a deep, fulfilled sigh and said "This was exactly what I just get you back."

Ironically, the 24 hours at home together breathed more life back into our marriage than the anniversary week in St. Barth's we enjoyed in January. It sounds so provincial but it is true. I am a travel lover, but in this season what we needed most was a pause, to reorient ourselves here in our real life. In the end I realized this is a blessing, because while beaches are beautiful, a fancy escape isn't necessary to find each other. It just takes a few less kids and a bit more eye contact to reclaim romance and connection right here where we live.

I read an article recently that encouraged studying our mates and familiarizing ourselves with what they need. I was convicted. What if we spent as much time identifying and attempting to meet the needs of our spouses as we do those of our offspring? For the last twelve years I have made myself an expert on my children. I could tell you with great clarity what they need to thrive. But that is not always the case with my mate--especially in this season of life, full of stressors, busy-ness and distraction.

Summer is full of kids coming and going. (We just dropped two of our big kids at camp today.) Here's to making the most of the times in between-- to linger a little longer with the ones we love, to make eye contact, maybe even to dream...