Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On Being a Fool

Late last year I joined a ministry that provides mentoring to Moms whose children have been removed from their custody but are on the road to getting them back. The first few months with my mentee were full of growth and progress. It was fulfilling and meaningful work, but for reasons I found hard to pin down we started to stall as our 'honeymoon phase' wore off. (This is a common theme in my life lately.)

Last week during a somewhat painful conversation with my friend/mentee I asked her why things seemed more distant and strained with us. She told me she thought I was too superficial. (I couldn't decide if I was more hurt or shocked by her statement. I usually scare people aware with my intensity.) But I knew there was truth to her words.

My friend's been through more heartbreak and struggle in her 25 years than most of us could imagine in 3 lifetimes. I thought I was loving her by staying on circumstantial topics--and she was begging me to go deep.

I was failing as a mentor because I was avoiding the very thing I started this ministry to do--communicate the life changing hope of the Lord.

Instead of faith, hope, trust I was chatting about finances, dating and her drama at work. All of these issues are real in her life, but she has lots of people she can address those with--she wanted more from me.  But the surface topics were just easier because I could offer practical advice, help her make lists and feel like we were making measurable, tidy progress.

I realized I have been guilty of doing this with friends--and with my children--and in other arenas where I serve.

Ministries and relationships that started with such purpose and meaning, reduced to comfortable boxes I can check and lists I can mark off. 

And suddenly a verse I read somewhat flippantly this Spring began to burn within my heart:

"Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?" Galatians 3:3 NIV 

Oh, foolish pride.

The Contemporary English Version says it even more plainly:  "How can you be so stupid? Do you think that by yourself you can complete what God’s Spirit started in you?" 

Oh, lazy heart that wants to take shortcuts. 

I think those of us who have walked with the Lord for a while can so easily slide into this mode. Clinging, begging God for wisdom and strength when we are starting out, in a pit of despair or have strayed painfully off the path...then slowly but surely replacing our trust in Him with our trust in ourselves. 

I pleaded with God to make me a mother. I spent much time in humble prayer for the hearts of my toddlers...yet 10 years later, how quickly I google an issue with my tweens or snap at them before I pray for guidance with them. I default to earthly rather than eternal wisdom.

How prone I am to forget that God cares about the details of our ministries. 
He wants me to slow down and ask my friends about their hearts.
It is His desire for me to really connect in love with my neighbor. 
He wants me to pray before I spout out my opinion about the latest controversy.
The Author of this life is also the Perfector of it.  
Yet, I am so quick to seek my will over His. 

The Message translation really drives it home: "Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up."

So, if you are looking for me, I think I'll be camped out on Galatians 3:3 for a while.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

How Is It Really Going?

"So, how is it going?"

This question is asked with genuine interest and concern at cookouts, in Kroger and poolside this Summer. I want to answer authentically, but the truth is so multi-layered that a headline is impossible. 

Recently it was asked by a newlywed friend and I countered, "We'll get to that, but I want to hear about how marriage is going for you." Within seconds both of our eyes were filled with tears because in that moment we knew though our circumstances were different, our hearts were similarly tenderized. 

The newness & shine is wearing off. The hope-filled beginning is waking up to the unbrushed teeth and hair of reality. The challenges that everyone warned us we would face, but which we couldn't quite believe would actually apply to our love and our call, have started to rear their heads.

A little tired, a bit tender and deeply aware of the commitments we have made, this is the part of life where the rubber meets the road. 

So, how is it going?
Smoother overall than expected.
Sometimes hard.
Often sweet.
Absolutely faith building.
Frequently cringe inducing.
Mostly really good. 

My response depends on the minute and which short story or slice of family life my heart is focussing on. I haven't written in two weeks because each time I sit down to record my thoughts I can't settle on which direction to go.

Do I tell about the preciousness of our girls' overwhelming gratitude at getting lunch boxes... "We've asked Santa every year."  Or my feelings of doubt after buying them: Am I setting their forever family up for success or frustration? In my desire to 'treat' am I making things more complicated?  I want to expose them to new and exciting things but not ruin them for the reality in which they live.

Do I chronicle the struggle of choosing a school for them?
How do I explain what an issue food of all things can be...so deeply personal, emotional, frustrating?
The strange twisting of my heart when a child vacillates between calling me Jennifer and Mommy in the same sentence?
How I have truly loved them since the minute they walked up my front sidewalk in the dark that first night? 
How I wonder what role/relationship (if any) our family will have after they leave--or whether that will be in 6 days, 6 months or a year...
Can I be honest about how frustrating it is during such a season of change to not be able to have a child-free date night with my husband?
Is it possible to put into words the bittersweet feeling of watching your bio children learn what real sacrifice feels like? 
Do I attempt to explain the simultaneous desire to rescue them (bio AND foster kids) and the deep knowing that God is absolutely using this experience as a part of their growth and their story--not in spite of the fact that it is hard but because of it.

How do I record the realization that the hard moments my flesh would typically want rescue from are now the times when my Spirit rejoices as the strongest and truest my life has ever felt? 

Or the everyday choices we make to balance the life my family leads versus the one from which these girls have come and will likely return? How I am holding back on some of what I would buy/do/spend for my bio kids because I don't want to set unrealistic expectations for their future home life. (And the fact that this 'sacrifice'/change has been good for all of us!)

The fallacy is that a foster child's previous life was all bad and their new placement is in all ways superior. It is just not that simple. I am becoming a better parent to my own brood because of these girls.

We've had our 'little girls' for over a month. The honeymoon phase is ending. Rather than Summer fun cruise director, I must increasingly assume the role of foster Mom. This means boundaries, rules, structure. It also means sibling quarrels at a rate beyond what we normally experience in our home. 

My children have had 11 years of working out their roles. A unique facet of a home with only multiples is that we've never experienced the integration of a 'new baby.' Now we experience the introduction of new big kids with their own 7-8 years of personality, life experience and role in their family of origin. This brings some (dare I say healthy) struggle. I imagine it is similar to integrating stepchildren into a home, only with the knowledge that this is temporary and without a definitive end date.

Even though it is my heart's inclination, I don't buy the lie the world is selling that my role as Parent is to hover, protect, insulate. I think we often glamourize this protective instinct as good parenting, but the fact of the matter is protective parenting is easier than letting go of the reigns a bit and parenting through the messiness of the world. Despite this belief, I second guess myself and feel like a Bad Mom in the moments when my biological children take the backseat.

Like I said in the beginning of this post...messy, multi-layered, challenging...

I believe in loving fiercely...which means to pray hard, to teach, to coach, then to let my children get some real practice. The sin in this world--the sin in ME-- makes this terrifying. But this is the world we have been called to be in and not of. We must prepare our children to love through it even when, especially when, it is hard and we want to duck our heads in holes and pretend everything is hunky dory. 

God in His providence timed this all just right...each of my bio children have been rotating in and out of our home for 9-12 days at a time for Summer camp. Each 'big kid' is getting a break at camp to soak up individual adventure and fun. Meanwhile, a lighter kid population (and break up of my trio) has helped our little girls find their place...and K, P, R to rediscover theirs. Individual relationships are being built. I am reminded that God manages the details. He cares for all seven of the hearts in this home.

Hard and good coexisting, stretching, growing. This is the stuff of life.  

Monday, June 01, 2015

Love Like Layers on a Canvas

When I started putting the room together our foster children would inhabit, the word refuge settled firmly into my heart. As I stared at the blank ivory walls I couldn't imagine what would effectively fill them.

I wanted it to look nice regardless of gender, to be calming and to match the drapes and rug already there. So I set out to Michael's to buy a large canvas and paint. The trouble is I am NOT artistic AT ALL. Pinterest has never been a trap for me because craftiness is just not my thing.

I really wanted soft blue, grey and tan comfort on those walls, so I tried. My desire and determination far outweighed my abilities. After two hours and multiple layers and blends of paint, the result was flat and plain, but it would do.

I mentioned to my artist friend that painting was much more difficult than it appeared...that I had a new appreciation for the seemingly simple contemporary art. I sent her a pic...talked to her about what I had hoped to accomplish and she asked if I'd like her help. She came by and picked up my canvas and returned a week later with this.
These photos don't begin to convey the beauty of the texture and layers.

On back she had written the verse I had claimed for this space.

He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge.
Psalm 91:4 

It was breathtakingly perfect. I could hardly believe it was even the same canvas.

And it spoke volumes to me...about the selflessness and talent of my friend, of course. But also about what can happen when we let go of prideful control and let other people add to the canvas of our lives.

Years ago a counselor I was seeing taught me a powerful lesson. "You seem to think there are only two extremes in relationship," he observed. "You think people are either independent or codependent and in doing so you have left out this whole wide area of the spectrum in between called interdependence, which is in fact where we were designed to live."

That man had my number...it is my tendency. I celebrate independence and fear codependence--and if I am not careful I miss the glorious beauty of community.

This journey of fostering is tearing down those old walls in the most freeing way! These are not "my" children or "my" responsibility...they belong to our community. This acknowledgement has led to blessing upon blessing to these girls' lives and to the hands, feet and hearts who have embraced them during this placement.

Six weeks ago as we were waiting on our final approval, a teacher from our school stood on my doorstep in tears with a jumbo sized box of frozen Eggo waffles and a lasagna for my freezer.
"I was at Sam's Club anyway. Thought it wouldn't hurt to go ahead and stock your freezer."

We both cried over the little people we hadn't even met who would one day have their bellies filled by this offering.

It was just the beginning.

She volunteered to be certified and approved as a babysitter.

She sends encouraging notes.

When she gave birthday gifts for my children, she included a little something for our two new girls as well.

She stopped by with a bike her daughters had outgrown.

She bought tutus.

She brought hair products.

She rounded up toys.

She stopped by around 6pm that first night, Ryland was working late and I was getting a handle on the new routine of dinner for 5 children. She helped me wrangle everyone through the process of washing hands, getting drinks, finding their seats and getting the food on the table.

She periodically emails me Bible verses about faith and trust.

She showed up with two shopping bags of clothes my girls' size.

She invited my new little ones to her daughter's birthday party.

She checks in on my heart and asks how she can specifically pray.

She offered her daughter as a mother's helper.

She gives my bio kids an extra long hug and prays specifically for them in this process.

She brought me a scrapbook so we can always remember the time we've had with these girls.

SHE is not a super woman.  No one woman has done all of this, but instead "she" represents a dozen different women have loved on us and in doing so, joined the cause of supporting families in crisis and needy children one seemingly small act at a time.

SHE is my community. These various women have been the feathers God has used to cover all seven of the souls in my home through their loving acts and words.

These first three weeks of fostering have been defined in many ways by knowing we are not in this alone. It is a collaborative effort for the blessing and benefit of a family in crisis.  As each of these "Shes" has loved on us, God has used them to teach me one of the most valuable lessons of this process. WE must serve together--out of our own unique gifts.

If it is providing a home for a child...get those beds ready!
But if it is not, there are still countless ways to serve.
If it is encouragement...encourage!
If it is cooking...cook!
If it is showing up...show up!
If it is babysitting so parents can have a date night...get approved!
Pray! Text! Bring tutus.

Don't make the mistake of believing love is always a big, huge decision...no, those moments are rare. Love is usually the small decisions to take one step out of your comfort and routine and do what you can, with what you have, right where you are to meet needs in front of you. The fields are ripe for harvest...you CAN make a difference.

I could have hung that plain canvas up with only my strokes...but the masterpiece came from the contribution of another. I had to let go and allow other people to give.

TOGETHER we can provide layers and layers of love and community that means far more in the long term than just one tired family ever could. And instead of feeling almost forgotten, our foster daughters have felt celebrated and cared for by many.

This is not just a lesson about foster care. It holds true for any community need/ministry. It is true of the development of my bio kids' hearts too. God did not intend for us to parent in a vacuum. Human hearts are meant for texture and layers. We are wired for relationship. God compares community to parts of a body--tied to and made better by the contributions of others whose strengths are different from ours.

So give love and allow others to do the same for you...and in the process of all those layers a unique masterpiece will undoubtedly emerge.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Peace & Pigtails

School's out and Summer is in. As if someone flipped a switch, backpacks and tennis shoes vanished to be replaced with flip flops and damp towels. Grateful for the break, no one is yet crying boredom. My days are filled with sunscreen, swimming lessons, bicycle helmets and ice cream.

Eleven days into being a Mama of five and I am not just OK, I am truly peaceful. This feeling is inexplicable apart from the Lord. I am less stressed with five than I felt with three--largely because I know I can't handle this without Him. I am letting go a bit of my need to manage and embracing laughter, chaos and laundry.

For the next month I will be dropping off and picking up my "big kids" at their respective Summer camps, while enjoying the simple pleasures of childhood Summer with the little girls who have dived right into the mostly happy chaos of my home. I have no choice but to simply tackle one day at a time.

We have had some adjustment bumps, but thankfully they have been minor and expected. My bio kids are discovering the joys and challenges of younger siblings. My foster kids are experiencing simple things for the first time. Last week they had their inaugural Chic-fil-A meal and finally asked "why do you keep putting dishes in and out of that oven?" Dishwashers and drivethrus...I am giving them such a cultural experience! Ha.

I keep questioning how smoothly this is going. Waiting for the other shoe to drop.

We had a call about a placement before this one. It was only one child but it was complex. We knew him and had a sense of the challenge involved. After prayer, counsel and gut checks we felt led to decline...and I felt like a failure.

My pride wanted to take him, but wisdom told me we were not qualified/equipped to meet his needs. My impatience with being on the bench wanting to serve needy children grew as two weeks of quiet passed with empty beds despite our willing hearts. Or could I even call us "willing" after saying no? During that time, I wondered if we had made a mistake.

Then we got these girls--and it has felt like God's plan. Peace is the only word I can use.
As they learn to ride bikes and swim, I am experiencing the refreshing reminder that obedience is not always hard.

Letting go of my agenda? That was difficult.
Entering into the unknown with thoughts swirling of all the 'bad' things that might happen? Challenging!
Choosing faith even when I was fearful? Gulp-inducing.

But, right now, I feel "peace that passes understanding." I am writing this down to remember...when we wait on the Lord instead of trying to write our own story and pull our own strings, there is peace. It is worth the wait.

Four decades of life have taught me that the comfortable place is not permanent...to drink it in while I can. There will be bumps on the road ahead, no doubt.

I already LOVE these girls. I am pushing away thoughts of telling them goodbye eventually. But I KNOW God brought us here and I KNOW He is trustworthy for all the chapters that come after this.

Yesterday afternoon as the sun was setting and we were walking home from the pool I heard laughter and looked over to see well-dressed people sipping wine on the country club porch on a glorious Summer evening. It was picturesque--right out of a lifestyle magazine.

I was sweaty and rumpled, carrying a soaking wet eight year old I could hardly hold (at her request). I glanced at the beautiful people on the porch and had a flash of resignation...that's not my life now. This choice has me on a divergent path.

And what of the spontaneity of roadtrips and adventures that classically mark our Summers? I can't cross state lines without permission...and I have 5 kids now!

I started to self-examine: Will I miss that life? Am I OK with the trade-in? And then I glimpsed the braided pigtails of one of my little charges, exhaled and allowed a soft smile to take over my face. This is my portion and my cup for this season...and it really is good.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Party of Seven

In 1986 when my class at Ladonia Elementary School took the Presidential Fitness Test I measured 49 lbs and 49 inches. As a 6th grader, that was very small. Predictably, I spent a lot of time on the bench in sports endeavors and waiting to be picked for playground games. I can still envision the dusty pavement I would stare down at as I waited for my name to be called...always among the last two.

For the last couple of weeks we have been waiting for a different kind of selection--a match of our family/home with a foster child in crisis. Ironically I was back on dusty ground at a baseball game Wednesday when we got the call--as I stared down at the gravel the caller informed me that we'd been matched with two little girls who needed a place of refuge-- and we've spent the last 5 days adjusting to being a family of 7.

As challenging as our first placement was, this one has been precious. My home has been infiltrated by lots of braids, baby dolls, Elsa, Anna, balloons, stickers, painted toenails
and a love of dresses!

The spare room where we prayed now has sweet heads in its rumpled beds (and salvaged party balloons tied to it.)

We are finding a new rhythm and morning routine. Our family dynamic is shifting to include a couple of new personalities. Our Suburban and our dinner table are full. I can't really discuss my laundry situation...Yikes!

There are far more questions than answers at this point:

How long will they be here? (It may be several months.)
Will the shine wear off? (So far they've been precious additions.)
How will the start of family visits impact their feelings about us? (We are pulling for their family to heal and be put back together.)
How will we all impact each other's hearts?
What will Summer look like with FIVE kids!?!

All of that will come in time...and it is a great lesson for this planner girl. THIS is the day the Lord has made. I must live, love, obey, serve right HERE. Tomorrow will come and the Lord will be there.

Until then, I'm brushing up on little girl life, holding pudgy hands and learning a lot about Frozen :-)

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Myth of Best Mom Ever

This morning I enjoyed the sweet tradition of Muffins for Moms at school with my children.

After breakfast, all the mothers took a seat in the Commons area as students performed a simple and cute song honoring their Moms. I wish I had a copy of the lyrics, but there was really nothing Earth shattering about them...which turned out to be what I appreciated most.

The students wore ear-to-ear grins as they sang to a room full of their biggest fans about the very ordinary things Moms do from waking them up to tucking them in--and lots of menial tasks in between. I grinned through my tears because those sweet children sang with a gusto that illustrated their individual beliefs that THEIR Mom really was the best.  The BEST at packing their lunch, the BEST at tucking them in, the BEST at hugging them when they cry. What a reminder that I am not trying to be better than other Mamas, I am just trying to do my best with my little flock.

After the performance, the children served as hosts and hostesses in their classroom and presented us with gifts. The art was fun, but the fill in the blank pages are always my favorite. Even as my children age, I revel in the gift of their words. While they no longer think I am 16 years old and 18 feet tall like they did in preschool, I still couldn't help but chuckle at some of their responses.

My three same aged kids, growing up with the same Mama in the same season of life deemed me "great," "awesome" and "cool" for entirely different reasons.

R: "She is nice, loving and outgoing. She is always there for me and never, ever stops loving me. I love when she plays with me. She teaches me to finish the drill, work hard and never give up." (He values presence and active investment in his life and growth.)

P: "She always spends time with us. She is never mean to us. We love when she takes us places. She is kind, loving, caring and funny. The most important lesson she has taught us to keep a napkin in our laps." (This sensitive and family oriented kiddo even crossed through every reference to "me" and made it "us." And you better believe he is working hard on table manners. Ha!)

K: "My Mom is so crazy and fun. She can really creep people out with her British accent. She loves to watch me play soccer. She makes awesome pasta. Her job is being a Mama. She has taught me to clean my room and never be mean." (So, she used the word crazy twice, but she values excitement, fun and adventure. She is proud when I am silly and engage with her friends.)

What a reminder that each little heart and life values different things and therefore has a different formula for feeling loved. Yet, God entrusted all three to little old me. Some days I feel pretty good at it and other days I feel like a miserable failure.

I think this is what makes Mother's Day complicated.  A day that celebrates the beauty, sacrifice and blessing of motherhood can make me feel like a poser. I know I am not the "best" or the "greatest" Mom in the world as Hallmark would like to make me believe. I often don't feel like serving or giving one more time--I just want to eat my french fries and not share. Some afternoons I want to let dishes and laundry pile up while I sit in the sun and veg out with a mindless ipad app. Some nights I am annoyed when people are up past bedtime and I just want to sip hot tea and read alone. I'm snappy when I should be patient.

Don't even get me started at all the super Mom checklist things I am not doing: growing my own food, buying only organics, mastery of natural oils, yoga, gluten free, screen free, homeschool, nightly family devotions... I am well aware of my reality, my hopes and my inadequacies, so when we start throwing around "greatest" and "best" the words ring hollow.

Somewhere along the way being grateful for Moms turned into announcing that every Mom is the greatest. I'm calling baloney. Motherhood was never intended to be a competition. If we fall for that trap it will so distract us from our primary mission that we will fail the very ones we were assigned to love. 

Frankly, I don't want to be the best or greatest. I just want to love well. I want to be seen and known by my people. I want to feel loved and appreciated in return. Keep your trophies and give me a good solid hug.

Being an effective Mom is a moving target that begins and ends with relationship--relationships that fill us up (the Lord, spouses, friends, small groups) so that we can pour back out in our families and our communities. Our assignment is to know and love the little ones God has entrusted to our care and do our "best" to love them in a way that points them to the "greatest" love of God. That is enough because He is enough.

So, Mama, you keep doing you while looking to Him -- because that version of you was handpicked as the greatest/best choice for each one of the hearts He entrusted to your care. 

Happy Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 07, 2015

99 months, 29 Days

Eight and a half years ago, I fell in love with my family's current home.

Tomorrow (God willing) we will finally close on the sale of the house we left in early 2007 to move here.

We have reluctantly owned a 'second home' 6 miles from our primary one for over 8 years.  The story doesn't make sense according to the way I long thought 'trusting God' was supposed to work.

The first home Ryland & I purchased together--where I cried tears over infertility, adjusted to life in a brand new town, welcomed a new puppy, discovered we were pregnant, renovated to prepare for a rapidly growing family and ultimately brought our babies home was a source of great joy. It was truly a wonderful home.

A series of events led us to our current home quite unexpectedly. Everything was so smooth in the beginning and bathed in prayer that the sale of the old house was almost a given in our minds. Until it wasn't. The Housing Market Crash of 2007 was squarely upon our community the very month we closed on our new home and listed the old. Once a sweet blessing, the house slowly became a big burden.

We didn't go down without a fight.

We lived with minimal furniture in the new house for months so we could show the home staged with furniture but without three toddlers.
Our kids turned 3.
We cut the price.
We rented it for a year.
Our kids turned 4.
We cut the price again.
We renovated bathrooms.
Our kids turned 5.
We rented again.
We cut the price again.
Our kids turned 6.
We did a landscape overhaul.
We cut the price again.
Our kids turned 7.
We repainted the entire interior.
We replaced carpet.
Our kids turned 8.
We thought we had sold it twice.
We had to walk the road of mediation after an ugly ending to a contract.
Our kids turned 9.
We cut our price.
We had another contract fall through.
Our kids turned 10.
We rented again.

We've been out of the house twice as long as we lived in it. Many frustrating situations presented themselves through this roller coaster process. The ownership of a house we loved but did not want or need was costly--to our emotions, our time, our finances--and at times put a real strain on our relationship.

I have struggled for 99 months and 29 days to find what God might be teaching me. We tried to follow Him faithfully through this whole process. We prayed. We sought Godly counsel. We followed the 'rules' and it was still messy and difficult.

After all these years, it seems I should feel more celebratory about the closing tomorrow, but the most I can muster is a sigh of resignation. I am grateful, but I am tired of this chapter. I don't think the check will satisfy what I really want: a neat, big lesson I could wrap up in a bow. (I like those.)

As I walked around the property this morning for a final inspection, I asked God again: What was the point? The loss of time, substantial money, energy would be so much easier to swallow if I could count it as the cost of some lasting lesson.  Make this count for something God. Show me what you have been up to so I can feel some value from this long, frustrating road...

Please make this make sense so I can understand. I promise to tell the story of Your faithfulness--just show me what it is...

But He hasn't yet. And maybe that IS the lesson. God doesn't function in a transactional manner. It is not ours to know what or why. Faith really is just walking in obedience and trusting Him for the rest. Even when it is hard. Especially when we can't wrap it up in a bow and explain it away. Real faith is knowing that the way He is at work may, in many cases, never make sense this side of heaven.

I learned lots of small lessons along the way. Hard ones that stretched me and grew me...but should 'small' lessons cost so much?

Honestly, this was just time and money. It wasn't cancer, terrible abuse, a horrific accident, devastating heartbreak...but one day it may well be. This world is not our home. Life gets messy. No one is immune.

And I pray we will choose to trust, even when we cannot see. Even when I do not get my neat bow. Even when it costs me. Especially in those times.

He is God. I am not. He is wise, trustworthy and concerned with an eternal picture.

99 months and 29 days feels like a long time, but it is nothing in light of eternity.

Maybe one day I will get my big, neat lesson from this...or maybe learning to practice this type of faith when it doesn't make sense was the lesson.