Wednesday, February 03, 2016

He's Already There

Around 4 AM, powerful thunderstorms ripped through our community. It was the kind of house rattling thunder and lightening that rouses terrified children from their slumber and sends them scrambling to their parents' rooms. 

I woke up as the thunder crashed and waited for the sounds of worried children. All seemed quiet, but for the storms, but I decided to venture downstairs and check on our youngest two anyway. They stirred a bit, but were still asleep--unaware of the severe storms raging outside.

I decided my best course of action was to stay downstairs--nearby and in easy earshot--ready to comfort worried little girls (and frankly, to keep them from waking everyone else between their room and mine.) I took a blanket from the den and a decorative pillow from the floor, then folded my body onto the small sofa in their room. 

If the girls needed me, they wouldn't have to wander around in their fear. I was already there--waiting, ready to provide comfort and love. As I drifted off to sleep I smiled thinking....this is what God does for me. In life's storms, I am not alone. Even when I am not looking for Him, He is already there. He's watching over me before I ask. My loving Father waits for me to cry out and is ready and willing to provide comfort and peace. And unlike me, he never slumbers or sleeps.



At 5:45 I woke to find the weather had calmed and the girls had slept soundly through it all. I heard my husband getting ready to start his day and went back upstairs. It was still dark, so I didn't worry with cleaning up the blankets of pillows.

A little while later, as I got the girls up to get ready for school, Bug* looked around the room and asked why the sofa was such a mess. I told her about the storm and how I had been there 'just in case.'

"You were watching over me? But I didn't even know you were there!" she remarked.

And I could completely identify.

Thank you, Father, for being faithful to me in the storms--whether I realize it or not.

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Parting

Monday we bid our LuLu farewell. It was not at all how I expected things to go. I had imagined the move from our home would be to her permanent placement, but the story took a different turn when we realized our family could not meet her needs.

Disappointment, humility, regret, relief, consolation...all of these emotions swirled during the week we knew her move was imminent.

And then these words from Isaiah lept off the page and pierced my heart: "Do not fear I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen
you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." Isaiah 41:10

 The message of "do not fear" is familiar...but I read anew the words DO NOT BE DISMAYED.

I truly love that little girl. I’ve rocked her when she was sick, held her close when she was afraid, prayed with and for her, advocated for her needs and ultimately released her with open hands to the chapter God has next for her. I had a God ordained role for a season, but I am not her Savior--or her forever Mama--I was called to love fiercely and then to let go.


As I emptied her closet, cleaned out under her bed, vacated the cabinet dubbed her “special place” and packed all her earthly possessions into four plastic tubs, I wondered where her story goes from here—and if our family will have any more involvement in it. We are open to an ongoing relationship--but it is out of our hands at this point.

 Even the timing was not at all how I would have planned it....she left our home 12 hours before my husband and I left the country for a long planned anniversary trip. We were not there to pick up the pieces with her siblings or with our own bio kids. I am on a beach far, far away with my husband as the dust settles back at home--and the control freak in me continues to suffer a slow and agonizing death.

 The moment of parting is a fear of every foster parent. How do you send off a child you have loved as one of your own? I am still a bit bewildered by the prevailing sense of peace and love that surrounded the parting. It truly cannot be explained apart from God. She left with a beaming smile--thrilled that her next placement would mean being reunited with another sibling. No one shed a single tear. I honestly think she left feeling celebrated and loved.

As she was preparing to leave, Parker said "Wait! I wanted to write her a letter." He dashed inside and returned in a couple of minutes with a yellow sticky note that melted me and reminded me how God is powerfully using this season in all of our hearts.
There was no time to ponder or catch our breath--we had a youth basketball game, last minute packing and final arrangements to insure the rest of the brood was settled and secure for our time away.

And now I sit, feeling a bit of whiplash, staring at an expansive ocean and a beach full of tiny grains of sand. I am reminded that our God is SO much bigger than we can comprehend. He has given us the gift of rest--time to reflect and reconnect before we return home to reengage.

Our party of eight is now only a party of seven which still promises to be full of its own challenges, joys, twists and turns. As we trust God's larger plan, we claim it is well with our souls.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Morsels that Lead Us Home

It has been a long time since I read the story of Hansel & Gretel, but as we navigate an ever changing path fraught with curves that require us to walk by faith, I have been thinking about the breadcrumbs the siblings dropped to find their way home.

Lately, God has been dropping morsels in my path to make sure I cannot forget that even though this road is hard, He is here. And unlike Hansel & Gretel's unreliable crumbs, God is leaving these morsels that cannot be stolen to remind us that He goes ahead of us. They are but the smallest taste of the feast that awaits us when we find our way home to Him.

While but crumbs compared to the coming kingdom, these glimpses are just the boost needed to strengthen and sustain us for the journey. Keeping our eyes open, seeking them, is essential.

My 8 year old foster daughter, *Bug, and I have tested each other for most of our 8 month relationship. She likes to know it all--and so do I. Parentified at too early of an age, Bug was not accustomed to having a Mama handle things. We have had to sort out our roles and it hasn't always been pretty.

The place where she and I always bond, however, is in church. We were sitting in the 9am service which she first leaned over to me incredulously and said "Wait, Jesus was born on Christmas? How cool is that?!"
In those same rows she has asked similarly striking questions through slightly-too-loud whispers, Excitedly, "Jesus is coming back? When do I get to see Him?" and
touchingly, "Did that man just say God is MY Father?"

I was exactly her age when I first started attending church regularly with my Grandmama and came to know the Lord in a personal way. Through Bug I remember what it was like to be shocked and amazed by hearing Bible stories for the first time--things my churched-since-conception children take for granted.

Recently, as a worship song touched my heart, tears streamed down my face. Her sister, LuLu, was confused and asked "What's wrong, Mom? Why are you crying?"
Bug looked up at me then back to her little sister before proudly claiming, "She's crying those tears for me."
And I was. Though she has tested and tried me, she has been used countless times to teach this old heart lasting lessons.

God is using this season. He ordained all of this--the good, the bad and the ugly. I am grateful for frequent reminders, because it is far too easy for my circumstances to obscure my view of truth. While I feel as if I am on a rollercoaster blindfolded, none of this is taking my God by surprise.

In the chaos, God is with us.

As I deal with the difficult emotions that accompany children from hard places... God has not forgotten us.

Plunged back into childhood issues long forgotten--potty accidents, being afraid of the dark and naptime mutiny--He sees and He is with us.

Weeks turn into months and court dates and case plans shift and change. This is not the timeline I chose, but God is on the Throne.

When I feel overwhelmed by my inadequacy, His grace is sufficient.

There are so many stories of the "God winks" we have seen at critical moments, reminders He is faithful. Many are too involved or specific to share. But recently, the picture was so clear I had to document it.

Last week LuLu said "You know on the first night we came I was supposed to be with my other sister Lynn*? Bug was not supposed to come here. The case worker got confused. It was supposed to be me & Lynn in your house."

As I watched Bug deflate before my eyes, my confident response was, "Oh, no, baby. God knew who was going to be here long before we did--and Bug was always part of the plan."

I could tell LuLu that with certainty because of events that led to becoming foster parents last Winter. It was a story 9+ years in the making, but the "a-ha" moment was watching a little girl cartwheel across the lawn of a resort where we were celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary.

Ryland casually lamented that he couldn't believe we were finished with that phase of childhood--and I replied, 'We don't have to be." The ensuing conversation concluded with a decision to start the approval process.

And our Bug, who learned to cartwheel shortly after moving into our home, hasn't stopped doing so since. She is so obsessed I have to restrict where and when she does them--and every time I see her dark ponytail swinging upside down I think, "Isn't that just like God...He brought us a cartwheeling girl."

Things didn't turn out the way LuLu thought they were "supposed to be" but my cartwheeling girl is a reminder:  The unfolding of life is unknown to us, but none of this is catching our Father by surprise.

*names of girls are nicknames

Sunday, January 17, 2016

When You Can't "Handle It"

In the last several weeks I have learned a lot about "handling hard things."

Adding a precious, precocious four year old to our family last month was a step of obedience.  For the first time in a long time my compassionate desire to save the world was trumped by the reality of the load we were already carrying--the knowing that we could not handle one more plate--and after a fitful night of wrestling with God, the knowledge that He told us to do it anyway.

I clutched my long held belief that "God won't give more than we can handle" and even quoted a translation of 1 Corinthians 10:13 that backed me up. " All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; He’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; He’ll always be there to help you come through it."

It got a lot of likes on facebook and one wise old friend posted a dissenting opinion and linked to another writer's blog... "I actually have come to believe that God intentionally pushes us past our limits because He knows that is usually what it takes to get us to turn to Him."

I was not sure what to think about this challenge to a deeply ingrained truth--a battle cry for weary hearts...the "You can do this!" we shout to encourage each other along the road.

Yesterday morning, after processing some new and complex curve balls we have been thrown, I had a thought--what if we have our focus all wrong. Who said "handling it." was ever even the point?

I am not aware of a single place in Scripture (feel free to correct me as I am not a Biblical scholar) when God said to any of His followers "Handle it." What I am aware of are many other directives from God:
"Fear Not."
"Trust"
"Listen"
"Repent."
"Hear."
"Do."
"Obey."
"Follow"
"Love."
"Believe."
"Worship."

 No where does God say, "Handle it."

The belief that we can handle anything is actually a insidious form of pride. I am coming to believe there are many things God has no desire for us to handle--He is calling us to let go of our fierce belief in our own abilities and trust Him for the outcome.

Honestly, in a different season of my life I would view this as cowardice, quitting or laziness--but in this season I am learning it is a call to courage to release the grip and let my Almighty Father "handle it."

The focus of the quoted verse should be on the fact that God won't let us down...not that we have never-ending limits. It is a slippery slope.

The last six weeks have been very challenging. Parenting six children under twelve has radically changed the spirit of our family. Once intentional and quality time focused, there are many days now where we truly are just "managing" instead. Our love for spontaneity has been reigned in by the demand for routine.

There are so many hearts and so little time.. I have incredible support--honestly, I am blown away by the people God has put in our lives who are the quiet, humble servants that show up and lighten the load over and over again. But one thing has been clear: We aren't "handling" anything.

"He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV 

The Message translation of this is the cry of my humbled, cannot-handle-it heart:
"Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness. Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become."

I didn't understand it until I walked it, but there is unbelievable freedom in having nothing to stand on but your faith. Every time I think I know what direction God has all this heading, the route takes an unexpected hard right turn. The control freak in me was forced out of town and what remains is new version of myself I am just getting to know.

If I could just tell you the stories of the humiliation I have experienced with severe public meltdowns, dropped balls, forgotten tasks, missed deadlines, behavior from children that defies all the books and training, people constantly in and out of my many-dirty-dishes-in-the-sink chaos, a calendar that is absolutely in pencil...

I feel like a dishrag who has had every ounce of my pride wrung out. And guess what? I've never felt this humbled, this light, this sure God was leading--or this free.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Five Reasons Why We Foster

*This post originally appeared on Faithbridge Foster Care's blog 1/14/16

“I would never foster if it wasn’t headed toward adoption. What’s the point?”

This question from a friend struck me with a surprising jolt. My already tender heart has been feeling a bit more vulnerable lately as a result of the intense emotions from having six kids under 12 years old in our home.

In a world full of mission statements, strategic plans and the tendency to ask “What’s in it for me?” why would someone choose to foster children knowing they were not going to be a forever family?

My husband, three biological children and I knew that it would be hard to love and let go, but we also knew that God would give us His peace and strength to enter the difficult journey of temporarily loving children from hard places.
  1. Fostering without the intention of adoption is a belief in redemption and second chances. At the heart of the Gospel is a belief in grace. Many biological parents simply need a breather to get their lives straightened out in order to provide a stable environment for their kids. If children can be safely reunified with their biological families, this is best for everyone. Fostering without the intent to adopt allows me to wholeheartedly pray and advocate for the biological parents to get the help they need to turn around their story.
  2. We are commanded to love and serve our neighbors, which means sowing seeds even if we are not the ones to reap them. I love the Greek proverb celebrating the greatness of a society where people “plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I want to be able to work on kindness, respect and self-control with the children in my care not only to make my own life easier but also for the good of these individuals and their future families.
  3. As parts of the body of Christ we each have different roles. The analogy that has stuck with me is the many different specialties in health care—your ER doctor doesn’t stay with you for your entire course of treatment. As foster only, rather than foster-to-adopt parents, our role is to triage, to stabilize and to lovingly hand these children to their forever parents, either through reunification, adoption or another permanency plan. I look at these children several times a day and think “these are someone else’s babies.” I pray for wisdom to make parenting decisions that are setting their forever family up for the best.
  4. Any love is risky. None of us are promised a timeline. My faith has been tested and strengthened as a result of having to parent day-by-day with no guarantee of how much time I have been given for the task. This has taken some pressure off the performance tendencies and allowed me to see each moment as a chance to keep love and safety as the primary goal.
  5. And, if I’m being completely honest, having biological triplets, more children–especially several more–seemed like a lot to swallow. Before we started this journey I would have never imagined a season where we had six children under the age of twelve in our home. Now that we are, I am reminded that none of us know with certainty the story God is writing. He leads us to different chapters through time and circumstances and gives us what we need when we need it.
This is why we foster.

How we do what sometimes feels like a monumental adventure as a family is with the Community of Care. It reinforces the truth that there is a place for everyone in this process—adoptive parents, foster parents, respite providers, drivers, baby sitters, meal providers, tutors…and the list could go on. Everyone has something to bring to the table in caring for foster children. Rather than feel shame over what you cannot do, ask God to reveal what you can do and walk boldly into that.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Legacy

Christmas 1998 I gave my beloved Grandmama a 300+ page journal full of life questions called "The Story of a Lifetime." In October 1999, she wrapped the completed volume and gifted it to me for my 25th birthday. I flipped through the beautifully handwritten pages in awe, then put the book on a shelf--only vaguely aware of the treasure I had received.


Sunday afternoon when I received word that her battle with cancer was over, I pulled the book off the shelf and dove in--regretting I had not read more sooner but still able to hear her voice in my head telling me the fascinating stories inside--of her youth, how she came to Christ, her long distance courtship with my grandfather during WWII, young marriage, parenting six children, the betrayal that led to her divorce after 40 years, how she enrolled in college in her 60s and was inducted into the National Honor Society alongside her grandson. Death, life, faith, regrets...she bared her soul in these pages. She was a blogger before there
was any such thing. :-)

Today we held her funeral, an event I've dreaded. Grandmama was a significant fixture in my life--a primary caregiver, a cheerleader, a pen pal, my neighbor and the person God used to get me to church where I could learn of His life changing love for me. Although almost complete hearing loss and vision impairment had made communication quite complicated in recent years, there was great stability in just seeing her. How do you close a chapter on that?

Much to my surprise, as I attended her funeral today I was buoyant with a feeling that she completed her 91 year race and despite a life full of less than perfect circumstances she lived faithfully and well.

The pastor's eulogy was so touching because it wasn't marked by regret. Instead of grief, I was filled with loving pride that I was reared by such a fine woman. She wasn't perfect--but she was the real deal. After heartfelt praise, the pastor used many of the words she had written in her memoirs--in effect leaving behind a commission for her five surviving children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great- grandchildren.

As he read her words, I felt like they were just for me:

Nehemiah 8: 10b "This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." 

There is a lot going on in my offline life that I cannot detail for the masses. After 8 months of fostering two of our girls and a month with their little sister, the winds are shifting, court cases are happening, decisions are being made, hearts are impacted and we are bracing ourselves for the unfolding of a story that is not ours to write--but most certainly ours to walk through.

I have spent several weeks feeling sorry for myself, battling weariness, fighting fear and just wanting to get to the other side of all this so I can rest and put the pieces back together. Honestly, joy has been hard to find--and today I felt as if my finally fully restored and healed Grandmama was looking at me with her glittering blue eyes and saying "Joy, Jennifer, Joy. Don't lose the JOY of the Lord because IT IS your strength." 

On the long drive back from my hometown this afternoon I pondered legacy--and what it means to truly honor a life. My Grandmama's journey was rich and full--and it was clearly marked by joy that transcended circumstances and a faith that God was in it all.

Rather than simply mourn her loss, I want carry her story forward with a life that says, "I was watching, Grandmama. I was listening. Thanks for the legacy."

She has passed her baton and now it's my turn to run--with joy.

Monday, December 28, 2015

True Christmas Gifts

Several years ago I set a timeline for myself to be finished with Christmas shopping by December 1. While the changing wishes of children make this difficult, I have adhered to this timeline for everyone else on my list ever since. This strategy takes the pressure off an already busy season—and sprinkles my hunting and gathering out across several months—making the experience more enjoyable and budget friendly.

I am not a Black Friday shopper, so Thanksgiving weekend tends to be my space for wrapping the gifts and setting them out (even before we have a tree). This year, as I wrapped dozens of items one of my foster daughters watched with great interest. LuLu* became obsessed with gathering and wrapping gifts as well.

She did not ask me for a penny. Instead, she scoured her earthly treasures (which fit almost entirely into a large plastic tub under her bed) and found items she deemed appropriate for each member of our family—and her biological siblings. With great seriousness, and even greater pride, LuLu wrapped for what felt like three straight days.

She wouldn’t let me see much of what she was doing, but I did glance in a couple of times to find her boxing up a tired pink balloon, partially used chapstick,  handwritten notes and countless kids’ meal toys. As a 7 year old foster kid, LuLu doesn’t own much, but she was generous with what she did possess.

A week before Christmas, a friend of mine who has invested time and love in tutoring the girls offered to take them shopping at the dollar store. Liz really wanted to girls to experience the joy of giving. Again, with great gusto and palpable excitement LuLu embraced the opportunity. She stood two inches taller as she arrived back home with her bags and announced that she was going to get to take candy canes to her whole 2nd grade class the next day.

It occurred to me that in a world full of treat bags and party favors, she had likely never had the opportunity to be the kid that was doing the giving. Generosity made her feel powerful. She was no longer just the recipient of charity, LuLu was able to feel the joy of giving—and it agreed with her.

Christmas Eve she begged me to let her go ahead and hand out some gifts. I made her wait. Christmas morning, while thrilled with her own haul, her true excitement was over the small packages she was anxious to give. As she started handing them out I could not help but notice the twinkle in her eye. She delivered gift after gift that would hold no real value in the world, but were an absolute treasure in my living room.


My other children delivered heartfelt gifts as well--I particularly enjoyed the card from R that had two arcade tokens taped to it, announcing that he and I were going on a date to the arcade "just the two of us." When the flurry of paper and boxes and bows had been cleared I surveyed the gifts from the hands of the children in my home--art projects from school (thank you teachers), an eclectic assortment of plastic bobble heads, partially used hand lotion, a teddy bear with a homemade tunic, an eraser in the shape of a $50 bill, a tarnished bracelet, a handmade snowflake, Christmas stickers and a clear plastic centipede "that glows in the dark!"

And while I loved the nicer gifts from brand name stores, these are the gifts I will remember. The true meaning of Christmas summed up in an eclectic pile of plastic and paper--giving what you have, enthusiastically, from the heart. This is Christmas and a lesson worth remembering all year long.


*LuLu is a nickname.