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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A Good Friday Lament for Child Loss and Childlessness

Good Friday is a day for difficult reflection. It’s a day we remember a tragic death. We remember that Jesus hung on a cross to die for the sins of the world.

This year I was asked by a neighboring pastor to lead a Good Friday service for his church. It was a unique request–could I lead a service of lament and remembrance for those who have suffered miscarriage or infertility? As we talked, prayed and planned, we decided to expand the service to minister to anyone who has experienced any kind of child loss or childlessness: infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, SIDS, failed surrogacy or adoption, abortion, or any other circumstance.

As a former hospital chaplain assigned to the high-risk pregnancy and neonatal intensive care units, I had an idea where to begin. As an aunt to two miscarried babies, I knew something of the sensitivity needed.

So we began with lament. We set our pain and grief before God through corporate readings and song. We prayed and poured out our hearts before the Lord.

From there we moved into acts of remembrance and healing. We lit 41 candles for children lost or hoped for. I anointed sisters and brothers with oil for healing of body and spirit. We went to the communion table and received Christ’s body and blood so that God would sustain us as we heal, and wait, and hope.

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Then we let Jesus’ words minister to us through Lectio Divina:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is kind and my burden is light.      Matthew 11:28-30

I wrote a prayer of response to this whole movement of souls:

Jesus Christ, Son of God who hung upon the cross in agony—
Remember our suffering, sorrow, and loss.
Help us come to you when we want to run and hide.
Replace this heavy yoke of grief with one that is kind and easier to carry;
We need your holy rest.

Living and eternal Savior,
Heal and restore us.
Gently teach us how to live with joy.
Resurrect our hope that you are good at all times and in every way.
Supply the resilience we need to live in broken bodies and a broken world, until you
Come and make all things new.


Too often the church remains silent about the pain and grief we experience because it make us (pastors) uncomfortable. Or, we tell ourselves, that the plans we have for our services and sermons can’t be interrupted. But child loss and childlessness burdens too many people for the church to ignore this pain.

1 out of every 10 couples experience infertility.

At least 1 in 4 women will experience a miscarriage in her lifetime.

God lost his one and only son to death.

The church should be a safe place to cry out our every pain and suffering. A place to weep. A place where we give ourselves over to the mysterious, healing work of the Holy Spirit. A place where we stretch our empty arms toward the God who knows our loss.

So tonight a small branch of the church gathered. Tonight we cried out like God’s people have done for centuries. We sat in the quiet–waiting, listening–and expecting that God was at work in us.

At the end of this Good Friday, we left candles burning before the cross and went home knowing that God heard our prayers.

May resurrection and new life come soon.

Missing is Good

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Photo by Greg Rakozy

I miss singing with a choir. The heat of bodies standing close. That gently gathered breath before the first note. The intensity of listening to others. Voices jabbing notes, caressing others. The intricacies of rhythm, of adjusting tone, shape, and volume to let the music tell its story. The dance of the conductor. The hush after the last note.

I miss acting. Bringing story to life through speech and silence, movement and stillness, light and fabric and color. This grown-up version of pretend is a dazzling work of imagination, play, experimentation, planning, and instinct. Oh, the nerves that made me pace and cough before a performance! The buzz in my ears and fingertips and toes when I stepped onto stage. The pride of captivating an audience and using their energy to fuel a palpable art. The satisfaction of hanging up your costume and turning off the lights for the night. The eagerness to do the same thing tomorrow.

I miss playing euchre with Midwesterners. The long, cold winters that forced us into one another’s homes for an evening of cards and laughter. The elaborate table talk my mother and her best friend developed over years of teaming up against their husbands. The house rules that were debated and haggled over at each new table. Even when you lost a match you made a friend, because that’s how Midwesterners roll.

I miss holding baby nieces and nephews. The trembling newness of being an aunt. Of being part of a tribe to welcome little ones into the world. Making my littles laugh. Joining their babble. Kissing fat cheeks and singing them to sleep. The joy of handing them to their parents when a diaper needed changing. Chubby hands curled around my fingers as they toddled. Reading and writing them stories to grow on.

I miss living in Hawaii. The sweet smell of my morning walk to work. The chill of afternoon rain falling from cloudless indigo skies. And then the majestically puffy cloud ranges. The brilliantly green geckos. Church potlucks, a revolutionary fusion of pan-Asian Polynesian dishes and SPAM. Chickens crossing the road. Waves crossing the road. Courteous, unhurried driving. Living the aloha way.

I miss summer nights in Ohio. The cricket symphony. Chasing the glow of fireflies with neighbor kids. Driving down country roads with my brother, the windows down, our arms sticking out and slicing through the wind like plane wings.

I miss living two buildings away from my best friend.

I miss a lot of things. So much has come and gone in my life, but I’m not sad. I’m not wallowing or wishing for something else.

Missing things is fine. It’s healthy. It reminds me that I’ve experienced so much of life’s utter beauty. I’ve witnessed. I’ve noticed. I’ve grasped. I’ve risked. I’ve joined. I’ve welcomed.

Missing is goodness that moves you.

Missing is not the same as regret. It notices change and acknowledges loss. Sometimes missing aches, but it isn’t always painful. Missing does not judge the things that fill my life now. It doesn’t look at the differences between now and then and say — if only. It says instead — how rich!

Sometimes, like tonight, missing things is an invitation. A whispered gift.

Maybe missing things matures our thanksgiving. It’s easy to be thankful for what we have and hold dear now. It’s more to be thankful for the things we used to have, experiences we can’t relive, people we’ve said goodbye to, and moments that will never shine the same way twice.

When we miss, but live happily, curiously, and hopefully — then missing is an act of worship.

 

12 Ways to Bless your Pastor in December

December is to pastors what April is to CPAs.

This month begins the triple crown of holy celebrations: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Christmas is our Kentucky Derby, but without the garish hats.

It takes weeks months to plan and prepare – not just events but hearts – to receive the spiritual feast that is Christmas. This work gets piled atop our regular work. Pastoral care and counseling skyrocket as the holidays trigger grief, pain, loneliness, and disappointment for so many. And like you, pastors navigate the extra expectations that come to family life this month.

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Chances are that your pastor’s inner life is a mess of scattered thoughts and mixed feelings right now. She or he is pushing (or crawling) toward December 25th fueled by stubbornness, waning hope, and the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, many pastors are too busy or drained to partake in the spiritual feast of Christmas themselves.

If you want help your pastor thrive this month, here are some practical ways you can dole out blessing.

  1. Send a festive card, but do more than sign your name next to the printed text. Tell them three things you’ve noticed them do in service to the church and why it matters.
  2. Better yet, whether by card or in person, affirm something of your pastor’s character or spirit. This will help them know you value them for who they are, not just for the role they play at church.
  3. By all means, invite the pastor to your Christmas party every year, but please do not be offended if they decline. Realize that their absence might be an important chance to rest, reflect, and spend time with their family or alone with God.
  4. There’s a time and place for constructive feedback. 5 minutes after the Christmas concert/play/service is not one of them. (That’s kind of like going up to a bride and groom during their wedding reception and telling them it was a lovely ceremony, but her dress is not to your taste.) Wait a week or two if you must pass on your critique.
  5. Better yet, volunteer your thoughts or time in the weeks or months prior to these extra events. If you have a great idea or a concern, take it to your pastor when they are rested and free to share their time with you. They’ll likely listen better and have time to consider/incorporate your ideas.
  6. If you want to offer positive feedback or affirmation about an event, sermon or service, try giving more than a “thanks” or “good job.” A pastor’s dearest hope is that their work is more than a pleasant experience; they hope it nurtures your soul. Please thank your pastor, but try something like this: “That was a great service because the silence allowed me time to hear God’s voice,” or “the music and scripture readings encouraged me to be more hopeful when life seems dark.” (If you’re not good with words, pretend my examples are Mad Libs and fill in the blanks with your own thoughts.) Trust me, specific feedback is more gratifying in the present, and very helpful when planning for the future.
  7. With a congested December calendar, things like grocery shopping or getting to the post office tumble down the priority list. If you are one of those rare people with spare time this season, how about dropping off a simple meal (thanks for the split-pea soup Sarah!) or offering to run some simple errands?
  8. Encourage your pastor to rest. Sabbath is never more important than when our hearts and energy are in higher demand. If your pastor is regularly open to your feedback and accountability, then they’ll certainly need it this month. Feel free to cut through their excuses (i.e. “I don’t have time to rest”) with a gentle but firm reminder that rest is essential to doing their work well, and to their souls!
  9. It’s super nice of you to gift your pastor some Christmas cookies or peanut brittle, but the sugar highs and crashes will make these long days even more challenging. Tired people need nutrients. How about trading high-carb gifts for fresh or dried fruit, nuts, or even a gift card to the local grocer? If your cookies are truly a prized gift, how about 1 or 2 sweets nicely wrapped instead of an entire dozen?
  10. Help clean up. This one might sound silly, but I can’t tell you many times I’ve planned an event and forgot to ask volunteers to stay to the end and help me stack chairs, wipe tables, take out the trash, etc. Not every church has staff to do this, so your pastor might be working for hours after everyone else goes home. Many hands make light work!
  11. Friends, your needs and concerns are legitimate and important, but in your pastor’s busiest season, it’s caring and wise to ask yourself whether your issue is time-sensitive or emergent. If it’s neither, consider blessing your pastor by postponing your meeting until the new year. That way he or she gets some restorative downtime at the end of a very full month.
  12. Gift your pastor time away. Being a pastor is unlike most jobs today; It’s not 9-5, Monday through Friday. Pastors work odd days and hours to accommodate their congregants’ schedules. They respond whenever there’s a crisis, no matter the day or holiday. And many pastors make a modest income, which limits their ability to travel or retreat. Your church may not have the means to give your pastor a raise, but can you afford to beef up their vacation package? Or maybe you have airmiles, a country cottage, or a guest pass to an amusement park? Gifts of time and experiences in a different setting will be sweet refreshment after a busy season.

I’ve suggested 12 ways to bless your pastor this month, but I’m sure there are many more. Have fun exploring ways to bless!

P.S. – This post is not a hint to any of my congregants. I am well cared for and thank you for your wonderful, consistent support. 

The Prince and the People of Peace

The Creator of the universe entered the human story like sunlight piercing a deep cave. Jesus’ birth brought hope to a dim and decaying world. He would grow with a wisdom able to satisfy thirsty souls. His compassion for sinners, and wanderers, and the poor in spirit would be contagious, and become an unstoppable force of peace that we call the church.