Friday, December 02, 2016

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Rather than the traditional turkey and dressing, we left the country during Thanksgiving Break for eight days of history, adventure and family time in Italy. It was amazing. We made fantastic memories and returned the Sunday night after Thanksgiving with full bellies and overflowing hearts. We were exhausted but grateful--and ready to wrap up November and start looking towards Christmas.

When I woke up (at 4 am with jetlag) Monday morning, I was shocked back into 'real life' by feeling very, very behind. Every social media post was someone's beautifully decorated Christmas tree, their trip to see Santa, wrapped gifts...and seven different e-mails about various secret Santa, dirty Santa and unwrapped toys I needed to send within the week. As I picked up my mail there were holiday cards! I felt my joy being sucked away before the season had a proper start.

It seemed I had been in some sort of time warp. We had left a week prior to Thanksgiving and came home to full-on cultural Christmas. But, the calendar still said November. I had pumpkins placed around my home. My Christmas decorations are all right where I left them packed on December 31, 2015. I haven't even selected a photo for cards.

Maybe it is because I usually get gradually sucked into the vortex like everyone else (and am more prepared) that I haven't experienced this before, but my eyes and heart almost stung as I observed the grateful spirited people I left now frenzied. Every friend I encountered mentioned feeling overwhelmed, stressed and behind...and it wasn't even December! I felt grumpy and frustrated--like my own holiday had been hijacked before it started. Then I got a spirit check.

Monday, as I tried to make lists and plans to catch up on life PLUS Christmas a received a handful of different requests from people in my life for real help--- help finding placement for a young mother fleeing an abusive situation, friends experiencing grief who wanted to talk, work that needed to be done for our local children's home, celebrating the artisanship of a friend being used to raise money for an important ministry, an overwhelmed parent who needed time and space to talk through issues and a spouse who needed me to take his car to Atlanta for an electrical issue to be addressed.

All of these things were important--and time-consuming. I looked at my calendar and realized the requests would push my Christmas To Do list out even further--and I felt sick. Then I heard the whisper in my heart "When you can't see my people because of the frenzy of your list, you have missed the whole point."

None of the things on my list had anything to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas. They were not bad. They were fun, sweet, well-intentioned and festive--but they were distractions from the heart of the season. I made a vow to myself--not to scrap 'traditional' Christmas--but to put Advent before commercial Christmas.

I decided at each invitation or crossroad I would ask myself if this was drawing me closer to the true spirit of the season or farther away. I committed to not let the world's expectations of what our Christmas should look like to distract me from what I know and believe about the birth of Christ.

Advent is about His coming and entering into a messy, frenzied world that had lost sight of God. Considering how I had been feeling, this seems to be exactly the year for me to reclaim that spirit of the season. So, I made a plan for how we could tackle the tree acquisition, the shopping, the decorating, the celebrating--and maybe cards. Then I set my face on showing up for the true needs of the people in my life--following Jesus example of entering into the real life messiness of a frenzied humanity as my own celebration of Advent.

"Your ability to love is directly tied to your willingness to be inconvenienced." -Ann Voskamp

Ironically, this renewed commitment meant I spent yesterday, the first day of Advent, driving 3.5 hours round trip to have my husband's car repaired. While I waited, I went to a large nearby shopping mall to try and find gifts for a few people on my list. Being a small town girl for the last 14 years, the Mall is not a place I often find myself. As I walked through chain stores, admiring the glittery wares and trying to find meaningful gifts, it certainly felt like an ironic start to my refocused celebration of the season.

We serve a God who promises that when we seek Him we will find Him--and that's exactly what happened in the hallowed walls of Pottery Barn. I only had a couple of things and there were two people in front of me, but the wait for check out was almost 15 minutes due to computer issues, a complicated return and a customer who required an inordinate amount of service. I shifted back and forth several times, but somehow managed to keep my growing impatience under control. When it was finally my turn at the register, the young man helping me didn't even look up. He was clearly stressed only one hour into the store opening. He was determined to check me out as quickly as possible as an apology for my long wait time.

As he sighed while trying to find the barcode to scan I said hopefully "It's the most wonderful time of the year."
The clerk stopped what he was doing and looked directly into my eyes, exhaled and said, "It is, isn't it?"
I told him that I was repeating that as a claim...that I had committed to not allowing pressures and expectations rob my joy and his eyes sparkled. "Yes, I agree."
Then he laughed and said, "I just told my co-workers in our morning meeting to remember we are selling home accessories, we are not curing cancer here. It is all about perspective."
"It's the most wonderful time of the year," I repeated.
His eyes twinkled as he said, "Thank you. You just changed the course of my whole day."

And that conversation solidified the course of my Advent. People before lists. Period.

I pray God will keep me in this posture, the one His Son assumed, humble service in a frenzied world. I am human and know I will stumble through it, but I am going to try.

Let's take our eyes of the list and focus them on the eyes of those around us. What do the hearts that cross our path really need from us--another $10 candle, or to be seen, acknowledged and cared about? I want to remember what it means to BE a true gift.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

A Bike Grease Gospel

Last week I started Ann Voskamp's newest book, The Broken Way. As is my preference, I was listening on Audible during my solo car time and while performing otherwise mindless chores around the house. When I realized I had already clipped and noted 6-7 things in the first three chapters, I pressed pause until I could get a physical copy to mark up. My daily household chores now have me listening with the hardcover book and a pen nearby.

In the book, Ann describes how she started drawing a small cross on her wrist in ink every day as a reminder to die daily to self as Christ laid down his own life for us. I did it one morning last week and was surprised to find how often during the day that small inky cross served as a touchstone, perspective shift, and a Gospel reminder. While I am not prone to ritual, something about this practice really resonated with me.

For the last 7-8 days I have taken a moment in the morning to quietly re-commit myself to the Lord and then scribbled a rudimentary cross--two lines across my veiny wrist as a simple act of remembrance.

Tuesday morning I rose earlier than usual to prepare for the day. We were all dragging a bit as a result of being up late for Trick or Treating and my husband coming, going and taking phone calls into the wee hours with call night responsibilities. My children had projects due, presentations to make, and I had a couple of important events scheduled. After dropping them at school I had only 25 minutes to regroup before a coffee with a new foster parent who was struggling and in need of a listening ear. Immediately following that meeting I was leading a small group Bible study in my home before a friend was coming by to help me with another project.

Just as I walked back in the house to breathe, mark my wrist and shift into adult/ministry mode, I received a call from the school. On the other end of the line was my Kate.
"Mom, I forgot I needed my bike today. Could you bring it?"

Kate is a very responsible 12-year-old who packs her own gear, thinks ahead and never makes these rescue phone calls. This was not really a judgment call about teaching her a lesson, it was about me.

My mind flooded with all the important things I had to do. I glanced at the clock and did some quick math. I could rush and make it happen. But my attitude was poor as I was already in 'real clothes' and did not want to deal with putting a cumbersome rack on my car and getting filthy as I loaded a dirty mountain bike.

I grumbled internally as a decided to skip the rack and manhandle the bike into the back of my Suburban. I had to climb around inside, lowering seats and do some pushing and pulling to make it happen. One of the tires left a 3-inch black scuff on my beige interior. I sighed in annoyance.

Hopping in the SUV I cranked the ignition with my right hand and noticed there was no cross on my upturned wrist. I had intended to do that during my precious few minutes of quiet regrouping. Instead, I was wrestling a dirty bike so my child could participate in a special mountain biking elective.

As I put the car in reverse and turned the steering wheel sharply to the left I saw it. Just as my right wrist was clean, my left wrist bore dark marks--not the inky cross I have taken to wearing, but dark smudges of bike grease.

I couldn't help but chuckle. And immediately a quote from Chapter Five came to mind:

"Love gives, and huge acts to try to make someone happy don't make anyone as hugely happy as simply doing small acts to make someone feel loved. It's strange how that is, everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to do the small thing that makes just one person feel loved."
-Ann Voskamp

And there is was--truth come to life.

I left that bike grease there on my wrist all day. I didn't need to draw one in ink, because God had brought me a real life imprint to remind me that we don't get to pick the neat, planned acts of love. Daily surrender requires being available for the smaller, messier, more inconvenient ones. Truly, these moments are the ones that matter most.

I made those two planned appointments--serving orphans and Bible study (about walking in love, no less)--but delivering that greasy bike was undoubtably the most important thing I did all day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sunshine and Sabbath

I never intended to take such a long break from writing. But, I have been quiet on purpose.

Three weeks ago today our foster daughters were adopted (along with their siblings--a total of five children under 12) by one of their family members. We have all been in an adjustment period. I have not had a chance to speak with the girls yet, I am respecting the wishes of their adoptive parent to give them time and space. I am praying God will intervene in their hearts and assure them how truly, deeply and forver loved they are by us--even though we cannot tell them ourselves.

We are in a Sabbath season, a recovery mode for our home and hearts. Our family of five has bounced back sweetly to prior routines but with an altered rhythm. We are not the same people we were 17 months ago. And that is good.

For most of my 42 years the tendency of my flesh and my emotions is to rush to judgment quickly. I like to handle things, wrap them up in a tidy bow and move on. It's not just me. Our busy world loves memes, sound bites, t-shirt statements and bumper stickers. 

The older I get the more realize that most of life is not just a simple narrative. I want it to be so...a quick adage at the end of every challenge that I can walk away with like a badge proving I've conquered that lesson. I crave a headline of redemptive meaning to every troubling scenario-- immediately.The last year or so of life has taught the importance of letting life's lessons simmer. I am learning to get comfortable with not having an answer or simply stated conclusion. I randonly came across a post I wrote 6 1/2 years ago with this same theme, an ironic reminder of just how long some life lessons perculate.  

So, even though I'm not very productive as a writer these days. I am still here. 

One day I will probably share more about the day the girls left and all the conflicting emotions of our 17 month journey with their family, but not yet. The story is still in progress and I can't even clearly identify the main theme--except maybe this: Don't rush it. Have faith. Let Him work. Be still and know. 

The mental picture I have of my heart and soul is sitting in an adirondack chair in the crisp Fall sunshine. Eyes closed, head back, feeling and listening but not rushing to declare any conclusions or lessons just yet. I am reading, thinking, living, spending a lot of time in the Word...basking in all of it. It feels like the healthy thing to do.

"When God intervenes and we get a chance to know we're blessed and to feel blessed, nothing is more appropriate than seizing the happy moment...Even if all we do is lean our heads back in the sunshine of our soul's Sabbath and take a minute to feel the glad emotion, it is meant by God to be medicine for our weary souls." -from Esther: It's Tough Being a Woman by Beth Moore (page 194)

We are in a season of sunshine Sabbath for our souls and it is full of peace that transcends understanding. God IS good and it IS well. 

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