Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Out of the Cul de Sac

In a recent post I mentioned  the circuitous, 'broken road' God has used to guide to various ministries in the last 10-15 years. Someone reached out and asked me to elaborate. Although this is a bit longer than usual, I did want to record this for future reference...as a reminder to myself (and anyone else who could use it) that our God wastes nothing, especially our perceived failures and inadequacies.

In 2002, impacted by the unplanned pregnancies of two people close to me--one who chose to abort and one who chose to parent as an unwed Mama--I volunteered with a crisis pregnancy center in Charlottesville, Virginia. The training and subsequent encounters with clients opened my eyes to the complexity of the issues facing young, often impoverished, women. 

Some I counseled elected to carry their children to term. Others did not. This ministry was pro-life and we were trained to represent Jesus to these women regardless of their choices. We spoke with truth and love about the sanctity of life--and offered small group Bible study support for those who terminated, as they dealt with the emotional consequences of that choice. I learned a lot about compassion, grace and that life is multi-layered and a lot more complicated than most of us care to admit.

It was compelling work until I received my own infertility diagnosis. Frankly, having these women weep and fret over unplanned/unwanted pregnancy when I couldn't conceive was brutal. They weren't ready--emotionally, financially, circumstantially. I felt that Ryland & I were. It didn't seem fair. God's economy surely didn't work like mine. Feeling much like the Prodigal's frustrated older brother, I realized that perhaps it was no longer my season. I wasn't mature enough to represent the grace of God to this women at that point in my life. My heart was simply too tender to love them and not make it about me. A couple of months before we moved to Georgia, I stepped away from the ministry. 

As much as I felt like a failure walking away, my heart knew it was the right thing to do at the time. It is so interesting, looking back at how God was setting me up for His next step. During my hiatus God used different experiences to turn my heart to how to support vulnerable, ill equipped Mamas and their children.

We moved to Georgia and within weeks of our arrival a co-worker took me to visit a local home for foster children. One brief lunch time visit and I was hooked! I have spent the last decade serving as a board member, Bible Study leader, and various volunteer roles. As my own children have aged, the schedule of after school time with the group home kids has been harder to maintain.

I have loved dozens of 'system' kids through the years, growing particularly close to 6-8 that I remain in contact with to this day. I am watching them start to have their own children...praying the cycles of poverty and abuse don't repeat themselves.

This is the social issue that breaks my heart. When I am immersed in this work, I feel alive. Even when it exhausts me, it is the best kind of tired. This middle aged lady is finding her ministry groove one God placed twist and turn at a time.

One of the more surprising things I have observed over the years of working with foster kids is that NO MATTER how terrible the circumstances and stories these kids have been rescued from, they feel an unbelievable pull to return to their Mamas. Many of their mothers are addicts or mentally unstable and these 'kids' want to rescue, protect and return even when their Moms haven't necessarily done any of those things for them. The instinctual pull of family is astounding. Watching this story unfold time and time again has left an indelible mark on my heart. 

Last Fall I was at a foster advocacy meeting when I heard someone speak of a new ministry designed to serve the parents who the court system is hoping to reunify with their children. The idea is to give these parents supportive Christian mentors to walk through life with instead of simply returning to their old haunts when times are tough. This is it, I thought...a way to impact generations by digging in deep and loving hard on one family.

I have only recently been called upon to volunteer but I am already learning so much. The first 'assignment' I had was to drive C and her baby to the pediatrician for a check up. I cleared my calendar one day while the children were in school to allow unrushed time--but alas, life happened. As I was on the way to pick up C & her baby I received a call about an appointment change for one of my own children. The doctor had unexpectedly been summoned out of town so I needed to get my son in within two hours or be postponed a week. I arrived at C's apartment, started loading the car seat and explained to her that my schedule had imploded. Then I laughed. "We will work it out one way or the other."

I was embarrassed. This was my first go at being a "mentor." I was supposed to have it together, right? Instead I was running late, in a kid-dirty car and having to adjust my schedule unexpectedly. As I was mentally calculating how to pull off everything that needed to happen, while still giving C my best she tilted her head to the side, looked at me and said, "It's cool to know someone who can laugh when it all turns out different than you thought. My old friends just throw in the towel when things get complicated and go back to using (drugs)."

I laughed again at the irony. I really wanted to glorify God by being an example to C. and He chose to humble me from the outset instead. The lesson God had for her was not in my perfection--far from it. The lesson was in my acceptance of and attitude around imperfection. 

A couple of months ago I was paired with my own mentee, but I think of her as a new friend. She has been sober over a year and is an amazing young woman up against some tough odds. Frankly, I am already learning a lot more from her than she is from me...about tenacity, faith, hard work and rising to the occasion. We recently had a situation where I really wanted to lighten her load, but circumstances again disrupted the plan. I showed up and waited outside her job as planned, but she couldn't get off work. I drove away feeling like my afternoon had been wasted and she texted that she was blown away at how valued she felt. "I can't believe you care about me enough to just sit in the parking lot for two hours."

Apparently that time wasn't wasted at all. It was an investment.

Presence, not perfection...it is really all people are really longing for.

Tonight I attended my first monthly support group meeting with these addicts in recovery fighting hard to rebuild their lives and regain custody of their children. I felt like I was in an episode of "which of these does not look like the others." Many of the women wore visible, outward signs of their challenging pasts. I was the outlier but they didn't make me feel different. I was greeted warmly and treated like one of the group. I sat around a table of a dozen women smack in the middle of accepting God's grace and making new choices every day to dig out of the holes old sin (and difficult backgrounds) got them in. As we talked about parenting, the differences subsided. We were women, mothers, daughters with much in common at the heart level.

It was so raw, so real and so refreshingly good for my soul.

God takes me out of my comfortable bubble to reinforce a truth that transcends all people. Show up, with love, humility and a willingness to serve with a flexible attitude. Remember that He is not looking for our perfection, He is looking for our obedience. God isn't seeking a picturesque performance, He is chasing our hearts.

Sunday at church my friend Ashley spoke about her experience with missions and ministry using the phrase "get out of your cul de sac." It has rolled around in my heart and mind for the last couple of days.

This world tells us to work hard so we can protect, insulate and move to suburbs, gated communities, safer ground...but, ya'll, this is NOT the Gospel. Jesus' ministry was gritty, vulnerable, raw, unpredictable, riddled with 'interruptions' and life upon life.

I feel torn between my life of airbags, insurance, security systems and private school and most of the places the Lord calls me to show up and serve. I am aware of the tension. I ask God if it is hypocrisy.

Frankly, it is often easier for me to go on short term missions to the local Soup Kitchen than it is for me to love other Moms in carline. Most days I'd rather stay windows up, seat warmers on, reading that get out and connect. I can enter in and bow out of that other world...sometimes the real gritty work is loving people who look and act more like me. God wants me to love them both because He does.

The women at my meeting tonight wore their issues on their sleeve, because once you hit rock bottom there is no hiding anymore. I was reminded that all the insulating, fluffing and dressing up some of the rest of us do to our lives is actually keeping us isolated not just from 'the dangerous world' but from the beauty of true community and love.

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