On Crying in Meetings

I confess. I have cried in professional meetings. Many times. In fact, three weeks ago in a meeting I cried so hard that I could barely speak.

A few things to keep in mind. First, I work in ministry. I’m not a PepsiCo executive sitting at a boardroom table crying over shrinking distribution numbers or a software engineer suddenly overcome with emotion because I screwed up a line of code.

Also, I’m not much of a crier in general even though my maternal family is full of criers. My grandpa can never make it through the dinner prayer if any of his grandkids are at the table. My mom has been known to cry during commercials and in restaurants. I may be equally tenderhearted, but I probably cry (the kind with tears sliding down my face) less than ten times a year.

So when I cry, it means something. My soul is engaged. Something I deeply care about is being probed.

As a pastor, I work both with people and for people, as an advocate. I regularly step into messy situations and respond to raw emotions. In 15 years of ministry, I’ve witnessed premeditated acts of hate and their aftermath. I’ve been a first responder to traumatic events like attempted sexual assault. I’ve been the person who showed up in the middle of the night, took the bottle of Advil out of shaking hands, and called for help. In my office, people process some of their most intense experiences — the effects of abuse, the loss of a loved one, rejection, mental illness, loss of faith, suicidal thoughts, and sexual issues.

This is not the kind of work you can do well and remain untouched. You can have great boundaries in ministry and still need to cry. Sometimes tears are the only way to expunge some of the toxins you’ve been exposed to.

My dearest hope is that my “work” reflects the deep love that God has for each and every human being. Since I ultimately serve God, it’s important to me that I strive for excellence in my work. I exercise best practices in counseling. I attend conferences for professional development. I read new research and consult the works of experts in the many fields that affect Biblical studies, ministry, and theology. I believe that ethics are as important to a ministry environment as they are to any other work setting. All that to say, I’m a professional. I try to be the best professional I can be.

But I still cry in meetings.

As a Christian pastor, the Bible is the most important book in my life. I believe its pages tell the story of God’s love for all people and reveal God’s plan of redemption for broken individuals. In a world that is slowly but painfully wasting away, I believe that the message of Jesus is the greatest news. His words are hope for the disillusioned and for aimless wanderers. They are a fresh breath of life for the suffering, the oppressed, and the depressed. They’re a warm light for all the people forgotten in the dark or dirty corners of our streets. God’s story and his life-giving words are precious to me.

Because I love God and his word so dearly, it can be tough to live in a pluralistic society that denigrates the church, the Bible, and the people who worship one God exclusively. Sometimes that makes me cry.

But I think it’s far more painful to be a Christian among other Christians. It’s disheartening to sit down with your spiritual family, to read the Bible together, and to have such divergent views of the same text. This is a book we all revere and cherish because it’s God’s. We are all sincere and loving, and we serve God well in our unique ways. We even love each other. So it doesn’t feel good when we disagree. It hurts to see smirks or eyes roll as someone shares their opinion. It’s painful when people make light of topics or passages that impact other people every day. It’s dismaying when we see each other’s blindnesses but we can’t find a way to gently expose them.

So this month I cried in a meeting.

But no matter who I am with when I cry in meetings, I usually walk away feeling a little embarrassed. Our culture isn’t very welcoming to public displays of emotion, is it? We’re even less accepting of emotions in the workplace. There’s an unspoken belief that strong emotions are a sign of immaturity, or weakness, or irrationality, or overreaction, or instability, or of (said in a hushed tone) being hormonal. And those things don’t fit the excellent or professional persona, so tears are generally unacceptable at the office. Instead, our culture champions clear logic, precise speech, and undisturbed rationality.

After I cry during a meeting, I worry that people think less of me. That they will regard me like a whiny puppy who just needs a pat on the head to be quieted. And I hate thinking that my tears may make others disregard my words altogether.

But here are some things that I believe are true about emotions. All human beings have them. We all have a wide range of emotions that we can experience: from rage to sorrow to utter joy. I believe God designed us this way. It’s we humans who choose to either express or suppress our emotions. Which way is healthier?

I also believe that God gave us brains capable of keen intellect, logic, and impressive creativity. The same brain that houses these things also houses our emotions. We are all both rational and emotional beings. Both things make us human. Both reflect the image of God.

So why is laughter safe and respectable in a meeting, but tears are not? Why do we prize rationality but look askance when people express their emotions? And why do we always talk about rationality and emotions like they are the opposite ends of a spectrum? They may be closer together than we think. We might be wise to consider that they are linked.

There have been times in meetings when I was crying and thinking clear thoughts at the same time. Imagine that! Now, sometimes it is hard to verbally articulate my thoughts amid the stirring emotions, but that doesn’t mean I am just a puddle of messy feelings. My identity is not reduced. Instead, what you are witnessing is a powerful moment of realization, something deeply true that finally crystallizes, or a strongly held belief that’s been triggered. Such moments are rarely emotionless.

When I cry in a meeting it’s because my mind is engaged. In these moments I am, perhaps, more fully human because I’m experiencing and expressing thought and emotion at the same time. My brain is firing on all cylinders. You may think it looks messy, but maybe you could learn to see the beauty too.

When I cry, I hope you will learn to read my tears. This is what my tears might say — this is a very important topic to me. What we are talking about has very real implications for me, or for you, or for people who we love. That thing you just said? It was either deeply true or it missed the marked, but it certainly moved me to respond. Sometimes my tears say that I’m grieving. Sometimes they say that you’ve caused me pain. Emotions are a language all their own.

So rather than avoiding eye contact or patting me on the head, would you offer me an equally human response? When you see my tears, would you sit up and pay better attention? Would you consider, or even ask, what my tears are saying? Would you be patient if it takes me time to get the words out? And would you offer me more compassion than I’ve come to expect, and not think less of me?

I cry during meetings. When I was a young professional I would apologize profusely, swipe away the tears, and try to tamp down my emotions. I rarely do that anymore. I’ve learned to be kind to myself and to not be ashamed of being a human being who feels. I’ve come to accept that this is just a part of who I am.

I love and serve a God who grieves when his people suffer, and when they wander far from him. I think my tears are often a reflection of the heart of God. 

When I cry, when I express any emotion, I’m being human. I’m resisting the tight bindings of cultural norms because there are just some things that need to be expressed. Triumphs and tragedies call us to respond. I want to be the kind of person who listens and responds well to the needs of the world around me. I hope my tears invite others to be and do the same.

I cry in meetings. If my tears make you uncomfortable, so be it. I’m being real. I probably won’t stop any time soon. And we might all be better for it.

The Wind and the Tumbleweeds

It was back when I had a contract job as a data collector for the CDC. I drove around the state of Arizona conducting surveys at junior high and high schools. I went to spots so rural that GPS was useless, street signs were minimal, and directions came as a series of landmarks like “go a mile past the police station and jail” and “turn right at the blue house.”

That morning, I left Winslow at dawn and drove through the wild flatlands of northeast Arizona, passing the rugged, breathtaking vistas of First and Second Mesa. When I arrived at the main school of the Hopi Nation in Keams Canyon (population 206), the sun was just beginning to warm the air. I checked in at the office. Two students escorted me to my first classroom.

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View from the Hopi Reservation by Biotour13 on Flickr.com

I’d been in dozens of schools by then, facilitated surveys in hundreds of classrooms, and I immediately sensed something different at the Hopi Junior/Senior High School. Though energy buzzed in the hallways as the students moved from class to class, the voices were much gentler than you’d find in the average teenage hub. All the students were well-groomed and most wore simple, neutral colored clothing. Both the boys and the girls had long, glossy black hair, often past their waists, none of it dyed or spiked like I’d seen at other schools.

I stood out among these people. I’d come, in a way, representing the federal government that had not been kind or just to their people. But rather than ignore the stranger, the students made eye contact and greeted me as they passed. Even more delightful, they took the survey seriously. They didn’t sleep through my presentation, tear holes in the scantron sheets, draw fire-breathing dragons or phallic symbols on the questionnaires, or fill in random bubbles to make patterns down the page. They listened. They read. They asked questions. They completed their surveys without the usual teenage angst.

That day I noticed the dignity. The Hopi teens carried themselves well, with unique confidence. There was no stiffness or awkwardness, at least not that I could detect. Theirs was not a defiant dignity hefting the weight of a troubled history. They had a shared, quiet surety, like they knew who they were and were happy to be so. Spending the day with them made me feel calm. Their gentle way wrapped me in a silky cocoon of peace. (Or maybe it was a nest of their long black hair.) I could have stayed in that peace for an age.

It was time for school to let out. I was wheeling my materials toward the main entrance through a thin crowd of students when a sudden, violent wind swept through the hallway. Gusts pushed through, one after another, so strong that all the doors blew open. Then tumbleweeds three and four feet high barreled in and smacked against walls and students, leaving broken bits of twig along the hallway.

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Tumbleweed, by Natasha Monnereau on Flickr.com

It was difficult to walk into that wind. I narrowly avoided the ragged edge of a tumbleweed. I leaned my body forward — my hair stinging my face as it whipped around, blinding me — and pushed toward the exit. Soon tears streamed out of my eyes. I yanked hair out of my mouth. I laughed. There was nothing to do but laugh.

I looked at the students around me expecting to see some of the shock I felt, but none of them seemed fazed. There were a few lowered eyelids, a slight smile or two, but no major reactions. They just kept moving. I guess gale force winds and indoor boulder-sized tumbleweeds can’t shake the calm of Hopi teens. It must be their way in their natural environment.

I remember this today because I’m trying to borrow some Hopi calm and dignity in a gale force week. This weekend I’m leading a retreat for 100 women. I have a team of volunteers to mobilize, a speaker to host, and guest band coming in, and dozens of details to chase down a handful of rabbit trails. My hope is to get to the retreat with some stores of energy — It’s a terrible feeling to be exhausted at the starting line.

I want to enjoy the retreat as a participant. And I want to be a warm, welcoming presence to the many newcomers we’ll have. But I’m just not sure I’ll have it in me.

I’m doing the best that I can. I delegated better than I ever have before. I’m being careful to not over caffeinate as a means to survive. I’m drinking lots of water. I’ve made myself go to bed early every night this week. I’m taking breaks to rest during the work day. I’m praying and using positive self-talk and taking deep breaths, but there’s still stress.

Last night I went to bed at 10:30pm but was still awake at 1:30am because details were whipping around in my brain. This week has been full of very difficult conversations in ministry and there are more to come. This morning, someone called me “just a little girl.” Recently, I spoke out of turn and hurt a friend; today I understood, felt sick about it, and called to make it right. Meanwhile, sheets of rain fell for hours as I worked and ran errands. The irony is that we’ve hardly had rain here in years, and now we’re in the middle of a weeklong winter storm. Flooding and mudslides may be a real part of my retreat weekend. I certainly hope not, but at the very least I expect to tiptoe through unavoidable puddles and have wet socks.

So, what I need right now is the calm and peace that I experienced among the Hopi people. They live in a rugged, sometimes harsh landscape and yet they are unmoved by the winds that pushed me back and brought tears to my eyes.

What I want is to arrive with my dignity intact. I want to shed this stress and have peace, to allow the details to play out in a fine concert of imperfection and be satisfied. Fully satisfied. (And then I want to return home, sleep in, have a late coffee-and-donut breakfast, and then walk the sugar off in the sunshine.)

Surely there are tumbleweeds heading my way this weekend. I hope I have the resilience to dodge them, laugh, and carry on unfazed.

Pieces of A Christmas Sunday Service

I had the honor of leading our worship service this Christmas Sunday. Here is how we began and ended our service.

Call to Worship     (written by Cheryl Lawrie of holdthisspace)
We are here because we have heard a promise of peace
      and we have faith its day will come.
we have heard a rumor of justice
     and we have faith its day will come.
we have heard a whisper of hope
     and we have faith its day will come.
we have heard a hint of love
     and we have faith its day will come.
we have heard of the birth of the Christ-child
     and we have faith his day is here.
Welcome to Christmas.
Welcome to worship.

Prayer
Father God, we thank you for sending your Son to earth to live and minister and bring new life to the lost—to us. How wise and wonderful you are to chose this way, the humble birth of a baby, to dwell with us forever. We look forward to unwrapping more of this wondrous mystery today.

Jesus, on your birthday, we welcome you again into the human story, and into our lives. We are deeply grateful that you came as the Prince of Peace and we grasp tightly to your promises of peace, of justice, of hope, and of love. We confess that we need you and your gifts to live this life. May we not forget to open our hands and hearts to share your promised gifts with those around us.

Holy Spirit, you are with us always, everywhere, reminding us of God’s big story of love, and our part in that story. May we know your presence today, and your wisdom guiding us tomorrow. Continue to teach us how to be your disciples, your storytellers, and your just and joyful witnesses to the world. We celebrate that you are here now, joining in our worship. May all that we do, say, and sing, be a blessing to your kingdom come. Amen.

Benediction
Now go, wrapped in the deep love and great blessing of God, your Father. You hold the gift of the Christ-child in your hearts. So go, give it away. Amen.

When Someone You Love has Chronic Pain

A decade ago I suffered a bulging, herniated disc in my back. It took months to get in to see a specialist, get a diagnosis, and find a treatment plan that worked to heal my body. For a year I dealt with constant, moderate-to-severe pain in my lower back, hips, and right leg.

Within weeks of my injury, I hardly recognized my life. The pain upstaged everything with its constant nagging. Sitting was particularly excruciating so my world shrank to a ten-mile radius around my home. My otherwise sharp and creative brain was scrambled into an unrecognizable slop. Sometimes the pain was so bad that I had trouble finishing sentences. My joyful, focused, and friendly personality morphed into something more impatient and irritable, always distracted, and often discouraged. Engaging with cherished friendships and hobbies became work, and that made me feel ashamed and frustrated.

A new back injury sustained this summer has me thinking of that dastardly year. As I make another slow and difficult climb toward wellness, I find myself drawing on lessons learned a decade ago. Coincidentally, I have several friends struggling with chronic pain right now, so it’s time to resurrect the “When Someone You Love” series. Here are some thoughts and tips on caring for people with chronic pain.

Believe in Pain You Cannot See
Unfortunately, we humans often only pick up on, and respond to, obvious signs of suffering: scabs and angry bruises, someone grimacing or limping, a limb wrapped in a brace or cast. Physical signs of pain trigger our compassion and helpfulness. But consider this—there are hundreds of conditions that cause physical pain which are invisible to others.

It can be difficult to accept that someone is in pain if you can’t see changes or limitations. So here’s your first opportunity to care well—believe your loved one when they say they are in pain. Tell or show them that you believe them. Ask how you can make adjustments or accommodations to make daily life more manageable for them.

Affirmation over Easy Answers
For many, chronic pain leads to challenging side effects: isolation from beloved friends and activities, irritability, physical and emotional fatigue, and loss of mental sharpness. Simple, everyday tasks become arduous challenges. Getting dressed winds you like running a 5k. Writing a daily report has the gravity of a dissertation. When you roll this nasty jumble of side effects together, you’re left feeling discouraged and disconnected. Less alive. Less you.

If one of your beloveds is in pain, then YOU are one of the best caregivers they could find. You’re even better than their doctors because you know who they are underneath all this pain. You can see what has changed and what has not. So, in real moments, tell them how you see their spirit or their strength shining through the pain. Have they done or said anything lately that displays their unique personality? Simply letting them know how and when you see them will be life-giving.

And please, steer clear from clichés or easy answers like “it’ll get better soon” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “focus on the positive.” Caregiving clichés are like wielding a velvet hammer. Despite good intentions, they make suffering people feel like they are failing or inadequate, and they often amplify feelings of weakness. With some careful thought you’ll be able to do something much better—speak words that are true about them. Words that are empathetic and truly soothing.

Connect with Coping Skills & Self-care
Back in my chaplaincy days, I often asked my patients to reflect on times of pain or difficulty in their past. With those in mind, I’d then ask what worked, and what didn’t. How did they face those challenges head on? What things helped them get through an hour, a day, or a week? What kinds of practical support did they need from others?

This reflective process acknowledges that they are an important voice (even an expert voice) in their own care, and it reminds them that they already have valuable internal resources from which to draw.

Chronic pain may be new for your loved one, but you’ll find that coping skills and coping support are amazingly flexible. They tend to adapt to new scenarios. Help your loved one remember what’s worked in the past and encourage them to try it out now.

Other than coping skills, chronic pain sufferers need to practice self-care. Over the past three months, I’ve spent hours resting, and icing and heating my hurting back—otherwise known as caring for myself—but I’m often emotionally drained. Self-care for me right now is not the things I do everyday to get through the pain. Self-care is doing the things that nurture my soul when I’m healthy.

Last week I had what I call “a good pain day” so I went out, bought a movie ticket and a lime Diet Coke, and settled into the local theater’s leather recliner. This is one of my favorite me-time things to do. Unfortunately, the chair was too soft for my back so I didn’t make it through the whole film before I went home, but I was sublimely happy that I got out of the house and enjoyed half of a good movie. That outing restored my positivity for several days.

What does your loved one normally do to nurture their body/soul/spirit when they are healthy? Can they continue that self-care routine despite their pain? If so, encourage them stay engaged in these things.

Beware Treatment Suggestion Fatigue
Treatment Suggestion Fatigue is my evil pet name for a very real thing for chronic pain sufferers. When we share about our struggles with family and friends, these well-meaning people barrage us with advice.

“Have you heard of Dr. Adams and his revolutionary treatment?”

“Have you ever tried cryotherapy?”

“You should ask for vicodin. That’s the good stuff.”

“I just read about the wonders of fish oils!”

“My grandmother’s chicken soup cures all.”

“Physical therapy helped me after I broke my leg.”

Please hear this, friends. You all have different opinions of what is best, and what worked for you or your grandma. But what worked for you might not work for me. The pain of a broken leg is very different from nerve pain. You might rush toward prescription narcotics, but I may have five very important reasons why I won’t or can’t use them. So be cautious of how and when and what you suggest.

As a rule of thumb, ask a question before you make a suggestion. The questions “what have you tried?” and “are you looking for suggestions?” are far more caring than any sentence that starts with “you should try” or “for me the answer was…” Pain sufferers will hear the difference in your words. Asking questions first shows that you respect them as the intelligent, intuitive keeper of their body.

Special Note: When Chronic Pain is Here to Stay
Sadly, there are many painful conditions and diseases that last for years, even lifetimes. While most of us will celebrate an end to our chronic pain, for some pain will be part of their new normal. This type of chronic pain is a different beast altogether and deserves its own post, but I want take a moment to address this reality.

Overall, I encourage you to be compassionate — both to your loved one and to yourself — to be flexible, and to be keen listeners.

I’ve noted that dealing with pain effects mood and personality. It’s also true that long-endured struggles tend to change us. When chronic pain becomes lifetime pain, it will likely alter your beloved’s personality permanently. (Pause and read that last sentence again.) You’ll need to wrestle with and accept that they may never return to the same person you knew before the pain came. They may be more irritable, less positive, or have a new edge to their humor. But don’t give way to discouragement! The changes won’t be all bad.

My bouts with chronic pain have made me more sensitive and compassionate to others in pain. They’ve helped me let go of my need to be in control. I’ve learned to acknowledge and accept limitations, to be kinder to myself, to ask for help, and to really believe that needing help doesn’t mean I’m weak or pathetic. It means I’m human.

All of this ultimately encourages and challenges me to entrust more of my life to the all-powerful, loving God I worship. And in doing that, I become more whole.

May God bless you, caregiver, with abundant grace and peace. May you use the overflow to nurture your beloved’s health — body and soul. I pray for swift healing and for many moments of joy in the waiting.

Much love,
Corrie

What To Do with all of your Feelings about the Stanford Rape Case

Like many of you, I’ve been reading the daily articles about the Brock Turner rape case. And like many of you, I have strong feelings about Emily Doe’s rape and the fallout. Here’s what is churning in my gut… Compassion for Emily Doe’s pain. Disgust over Turner’s senseless act of sexual violence. Deep angst toward his apparent ignorance of the real issue—his reprehensible rape of a woman—and his lack of repentance for his crimes. Anger at Turner’s attorney for victim blaming during the trail. Outrage at Judge Persky’s sentencing and rationale. Helplessness that we live in a world so selfish and broken that any person would rape another.

All of these emotions leave me feeling very raw and weary. A small part of me wishes that Emily’s story didn’t affect me. I wish I could ignore this whole atrocity, turn away from the news, and protect myself from these terrible feelings; but I can’t. Thankfully, the larger part of my heart doesn’t want to turn away because Emily’s story is important and personal to me.

I live and work three miles from Stanford University. I may have passed Emily in Trader Joe’s. I may have steered my car around Brock Turner as he cycled to class on campus. These young people are my neighbors. Palo Alto is the community where I minister.

These events also feel personal because I worked with college students for six years. The things I witnessed among developing adults motivated me to understand abuse and to later become an abuse educator and victim’s advocate. When I was a hospital chaplain, I met with a few rape victims just hours after they were assaulted. As a pastor, I’ve supported many women who have been raped, molested, and abused in other ways. Reading Emily Doe’s story makes me recall a hundred other stories that I hold in the shadowy recesses of my heart.

Even though I haven’t experienced the pain of rape myself, the people and stories I’ve encountered in my career have ravaged my emotions. Supervisors advised me to keep an emotional distance in these situations. I really tried in the early years, but then I began to wonder—is there a way to remain impervious when a woman sits next to you and shakes as she recalls the most terrifying hours of her life? Now, I don’t think it’s possible to be fully human in those moments and remain emotionally detached. Not when you’ve heard a victim’s story, held her hand, seen her wounds, and shared her pain-filled silences.

I’m human. And when other humans are suffering, I hurt. Emily Doe’s story, and all of the stories that have rippled out from Brock Turner’s act of violence, hurt me. And from the outrage I see across social media, many of you are hurting too.

So what do I do when another horrifying story of injustice rips me open? What do we do with all these wildly raging emotions when we hear a story of such violence being done against a human being—especially when we aren’t directly involved in the situation?

Use them. Use the emotions.

The best advice I can give you is to gather up all of the emotions you feel churning inside you and turn them into fuel. Let the ferocity of your anger and the raised hackles of injustice motivate you to live a transformational life.

Don’t just be a person who seeks to do no harm to others. Be a person who actively looks for ways to protect the vulnerable, someone who steps forward to advocate for victims of all kinds in your sphere of influence—be it big or small. Our impassioned emotions might lead us to protests and rallies, to sign petitions to hold civic leaders accountable, or to volunteer with organizations that are doing their best to spread justice in our communities.

Not all of us will have the opportunity to directly intervene in an act of sexual violence like the Swedish graduate students, but all of us will have opportunities to care for someone who has been abused. In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes. If you know four girls under the age of 18, at least one of them has experienced abuse. The same is true if you know six boys under 18.

Statistics indicate that all of us know or will know someone who has been abused in some way—sexually, emotionally, verbally, or spiritually. This fact may outrage and sadden us, but we don’t have to stop at feeling. We can allow those feelings to shape the way we interact with others. You may not know whom in your life shares Emily Doe’s story, but someone does. So it’s best to always speak and act with kindness because you never know the wounds people are hiding.

Choose to be a person who approaches people who are hurting. Listen attentively to their stories and do your best to understand their circumstances. Allow their painful experiences to expand and fill your stores of compassion. And if you are healthy and able, you might even sacrifice some of your time and ask how you might help carry their burdens or stand in solidarity with them.

For those of you who are shocked by Emily Doe’s story and don’t know much about sexual assault, allow your shock and horror to motivate you to learn about abuse—what it is, its prevalence, causes, and consequences.

If you are a parent or someone with direct influence over children, think critically about what language, attitudes, actions, and proverbs you pass on. Abuse is a learned behavior. You can be an adult who raises up compassionate, respectful, peacemaking children, the kind of children who grow into adults who jump off their bicycles and intervene when they see someone being raped.

And speaking of those two Swedes, I’m reminded that it’s not just the dark emotions of injustice that can change us and make us transformational, compassionate people. Along with all my anger and outrage over the Stanford rape case, there have also been healthy doses of inspiration. Every moment and movement of bravery and resilience and justice in this case has brought healing tears.

…we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on…Your life is not over, you have decades of years ahead to rewrite your story. The world is huge, it is so much bigger than Palo Alto and Stanford, and you will make a space for yourself in it where you can be useful and happy…

Emily Doe wrote that in her victim’s statement to the court. She wrote that to her rapist. That she is even able to think about Brock Turner’s future makes me stand in awe. Emily’s statement shows me that rape and violence and pain have not won. They are not the end of her story. Emily has not been extinguished by what Brock Turner did to her. Instead, she is rising up out of her horrifying ordeal, it seems, with her own expanded stores of compassion and understanding.

Maybe I’ll meet Emily Doe one day as I live and work near her. Maybe I won’t. But I’m so thankful that she had the courage to write and share her statement, her story. Emily, you’ve reminded me again of the beauty of the human spirit. You shine with it. Your story reignites my desire to be an advocate and a peacemaker, someone who is as kind to the grumpy woman in line at the grocery story as I am to someone who comes to my office for counseling.

Thank you to Emily Doe, and to all of the Emilys who have shared your stories with me over the years. Your pain has changed me. Your ability to overcome, and seeing you reemerge to life, has taught me how to endure and learn from my own hardships. Because of you, I choose to live in a way that helps others heal and thrive.

 

Most importantly, thank you to the two men who saved me, who I have yet to meet. I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another. To have known all of these people, to have felt their protection and love, is something I will never forget.

Today is The Day

In 2008 I lived in Pennsylvania and worked long hours in college student development. In the few spaces of quiet and solitude in my busy life, I noticed an unexpected theme.

Whenever I listened to the radio I heard bulletins about the huge need for foster homes in my area. Recruitment billboards blanketed our country roadways. These ads pinched my soul, but I ignored that pinch for several reasons: I was single, young, lived on a college campus, had a low income, and worked irregular hours. I thought I was far from an ideal foster parent candidate. So when I heard and saw those ads, I just prayed. I prayed for the children in need, for their social workers, for foster parents to step forward, and kept living.

But then something strange happened. I started having dreams where children were calling to me. Sometimes it was one voice; other times a few. And here’s the kicker — the kids called me mommy.

In my life up to that point, I remembered the content of four dreams. Four. (I’m sure I dream often, but I can’t recall them when I wake.) So when you remember a handful of dreams in 28 years and then you regularly dream about children calling you mommy, you start paying attention.

My mentors urged me not to ignore this, as odd and unsettling as it was. So I talked to God about it. I waited and listened. After a few months of billboards, radio pleas, the dreams, and the inner pinch, I began to see it all as an invitation. An invitation to what, I didn’t know, but I decided to honor it as something, and took action.

I attended a foster care information session to hear more about the need in my county. There were some brutal statistics and compelling stories that left me rattled. After that I prayed more and looped in my family and closest friends. I continued processing with mentors. A few weeks later I signed up for training classes. I was still unsure of what I was being invited to do, but I hoped the process would help me figure that out.

20160429_230447_001On February 5, 2009 — after months of classes, interviews, paperwork, and home inspections — the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania licensed me as therapeutic foster parent. I started the process feeling curious and a bit afraid of where this might lead. By the time I was licensed, my curiosity had morphed into a profound sense of calling.

For me, becoming a foster parent is about doing Kingdom justice. God grieves that children are abused, neglected, and traumatized. For as long as there has been brokenness in the world, God has called his people to care for the vulnerable, especially children.

America — one of the richest countries on earth per capita, and the country with the most Christians — has over 400,000 children in the foster system. A quarter of those children could be adopted today. TODAY. And yet so many of our vulnerable children are stuck in the system and have little hope for a permanent home. In the county where I live, there are currently 1,300 foster children and only 150 active foster families. Foster youth are at much greater risk of becoming victims of human trafficking. Up to 33% of foster children who age out of the system will become homeless.

Not only does this grieve God, as an adopted child of God, it hurts me.

I cannot do nothing.

 …learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:17

A lot has happened in my life since 2009. I’ve been waiting for the right time and place to go through the licensing process again. Now is that time. During this long wait, I’ve observed and supported friends who’ve both fostered and adopted children through the system. I’ve read a stack of books on childhood trauma, abuse and neglect, and the developing brain. I’ve watched every documentary I can get my hands on. I have my eyes wide open.

I’ve seen how difficult, uncertain, and painful fostering can be. But my fears have crumbled under the strength of my resolve.

20160430_135554 (1)Today I began the licensing process again. I hope that by September I’ll be sharing my life and home with a child in need. And if the circumstances are right, if the state permits and God wills, I’ll adopt that child so she or he can have a safe and stable home forever.

Foster caring is not a fairytale. It’s not a story where I will be a savior. It’s not an “easy way to build a family.” It’s not a simple solution for infertility, and it may not be a healthy choice for an unmarried person who just wants kids.

Caring for vulnerable and wounded children requires sacrifice. It disrupts comfortable lives with waves that can ripple for months, years, and even decades. It amplifies stress and causes pain and heartache. It makes uncertainty part of your daily life. It requires all the patience, attentiveness, compassion, and strategic thinking we adults can muster. But I believe all this sacrifice and effort are worth any risk.

Vulnerable children are worth everything we have to give.

I’m not doing this to be noble; I expect this will be the most difficult thing that I will ever do. I’m doing this to obey God’s call on my life. I’m doing it because it’s a branch of God’s justice that I am well equipped to join.

To be honest, I have concerns. How will I handle the first or fiftieth public tantrum? How will I adjust to more eating-in, less sleep, and following a strict budget? How will I respond to the criticism of others who don’t understand what it takes to raise a traumatized child? Will my work suffer? What will I do if my child becomes violent?

I’m concerned, but I am not afraid. I feel courageous. And that can only be the work of the Holy Spirit.

I’m also wise enough to know that I cannot do this alone. Thankfully, God has placed me in a church that has over 15 foster and adoptive families. I also have incredibly supportive parents. My closest friends are on standby for middle-of-the-night phone calls. But I also need you.

I need you to pray for me. For everything.

I’ll need your favorite kid-friendly recipes; your hand-me-down clothes, bikes, and books; and whatever parenting hacks you can pass on that might simplify my life.

I’ll need your encouragement and your hugs. I’ll need you to listen to me vent and doubt and process. I’ll need your calm logic when I’ve reached the end of mine.

I’ll need you to keep me laughing. To help me not sweat the small stuff. And I may even need you to cry with me.

Please keep me close.

Only God knows what the next months and years hold for me. But today is the long-awaited day that something new begins. However my life and my soul are challenged and changed, I hope that I will be able to help at least one vulnerable child.

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