Love, from a Mom

You may have noticed that Pastor with a Purse has been pretty quiet this year. I’ve been spending a lot of what used to be my creative writing time praying, resting, and scooping up fresh motivation.

But life has also fundamentally changed. The good news is that I’ve accepted my first foster care placement. Those of you who have been with me for years know that I began this adventure back in 2008. There’s been a lot of discerning and waiting and praying and preparing to turn the dream of fostering into a real person who now shares my home and life. You can read more about how and why I got here in Mother One Day and Today is the Day. Now, I can say with profound gratitude and a dash of trepidation–the wait is over.

Almost four weeks ago, on an ordinary Wednesday, I got a call about a young girl in need of a new home. We met on Friday and she told her social worker that she wanted to live with me for two reasons: I’m nice, and she wanted to go to church. She visited my home on Sunday and she moved in on Monday. Two days later we had her registered at her new school.

The past month has been a flurry of phone calls, appointments, social worker visits, emergency team check-ins, back-to-school night, emailing teachers, finding new healthcare providers, and adjusting to our new normal.

I’d love to chronicle all the new experiences, struggles, joys, and fears, but one challenge of being part of a foster care story is that I can’t legally share any details about her on the internet and social media. There’s a chance that one day she may legally be my daughter, but there’s also a likelihood that she will be a temporary daughter. Only God knows that bit–the big, uncertain future–but I’m content to live each day simply focusing on her needs here and now.

Rather than fret about things I can’t control, I’m focusing on the fundamentals like her knowing I will always feed her and provide her with clothes and school supplies. Academic “success” in the pressure cooker of Silicon Valley? That doesn’t even make my list of top 25 priorities.

I’m tossing aside conventional parenting expectations to meet the most basic and important human needs: to feel safe, to be loved unconditionally, to build trust, to care for our bodies and our hearts, to know what to do with the nasty emotions that make sneak attacks and leave us reeling, to be free to be a kid after your childhood is stolen from you, event by painful event. If I had to do a 30 day review, I’d say we are doing pretty darn well.

There are so many feelings and so much exhaustion. Here’s what I posted to my Facebook wall last night as I lay curled up in bed, limp and weary but wired:

This is the most significant thing I’ve done with my life to date. I’m mostly living hour by hour, flexing my life around the ever-changing and delicate needs of this precious human that has taken over my house and my time and will likely take over my heart. I sink into my beloved mattress at my new bedtime of 10pm and gulp in the stillness and quiet, and take lots of deep breaths and think–this is so big, and good, and scary, and fun, and motivating.

I’m doing ok, good even. We’re alive and safe and functioning well (despite a head cold for her and a virus for me and a wicked heat wave all over the holiday weekend). We are laughing over board games and our hundredth game of Uno, learning to let loose as we lip sync to Selena Gomez, taking bike rides and shopping trips, braiding hair and negotiating what clothes are age appropriate, and tackling homework to mixed reviews. There are so many thoughts and feelings and appointments that my brain is now constantly leaking details, but what is most important in this life is not being forgotten.

Each day feels a bit like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon–you know, the parts of the park where there is not a guard rail or even a frayed rope between you and the sheer cliff? It’s wildly beautiful, awe-inspiring, and terrifying all at the same time, but that’s life.

So now it’s 42 minutes past my bedtime and my eyes are telling me I’m too old and too parental to be up this late. So, off I go to the wonderland I call sleep. 6am comes too soon, but there’s never been a better reason to get up early.

Before I became a parent, I worried that I would feel constantly watched and judged by other people’s expectations of my child or their expectations of me as a parent. I also worried about whether I would feel like I was constantly failing. I so often see Facebook statuses and blog posts and articles about family life where moms are tossing about “mom fail” jokes, which I suspect often cover insecurity.

What has surprised me most in this new, wild place is that I feel nothing but satisfied with my efforts. I’m far from perfect. I don’t know nearly as much as I could to help this child thrive. But I’m giving her and myself heaping amounts of grace. There’s freedom to learn, and wide columns for mistakes. There’s open range to ask questions so we can both do better next time. I’m often shaking before some of these new challenges, but I keep looking back at all I’ve overcome in my life and remembering all I’ve seen God accomplish through my simple obediences, and then I’m able to move my trembling feet forward.

I guess I’m being brave. In case you didn’t know, that’s not just for children.

Half the time I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m texting friends and professionals a lot for perspective and advice. I’m asking for prayer regularly. I’m asking for practical help more. But at the end of the day it’s me and her and the Holy Spirit in our little home now packed with a second life’s worth of goods and baggage. So I’m telling myself every day–this is important. You are doing well. She is safe. Build from there. That is good. That is enough.

So Pastor with a Purse may have gone quiet, but there’s a whole lot of good going on under the surface. Hopefully I’ll be back soon to share with you more victories and more of what I’m discovering.

Until then my friends, be brave. Be obedient to your call even when it seems crazy and outlandish, and even when people you love discourage you with their concerns. Give yourself an embarrassing overabundance of grace in new and wild places. Never forget what is most important.

Love,
Corrie, the new mom/mum/mama

 

The Break

This spring I was working very part-time at a church while I continued a multi-year search for a full-time, permanent position. I was strapped for cash and hope. As I marked my 250th job application, I felt overlooked and frustrated.

The waiting was the hardest part of those years. For all of the hours I spent searching the internet, applying for jobs, and praying, I spent hundreds more waiting. I learned then that waiting can deplete energy faster than any other activity.

As the waiting stretched on, I began to feel diminished. I joked more than once that I was experiencing brain atrophy, but I wasn’t laughing. I was so emotionally exhausted that sometimes I lost my train of thought and stopped in the middle of a sentence. The worst thing in all of this was feeling like I’d lost touch with the vibrant person I am.

Last winter, during the miserable waiting, I went on a spiritual retreat and spent an hour slowly walking a labyrinth. The path was shaped by mismatched rocks on top of sparse Arizona earth. I was so focused on the rhythm of my steps and my prayers, that I missed most of my surroundings. But then, there was a moment when I looked ahead, saw, and stopped. On the ground along a particularly sharp corner of the labyrinth, was a sprig of pale green topped with a single flower. The petals were an apricot color kissed with sunshine. It was a desert poppy, its presence so cheerful and carefree in the middle of so much dust, that I started to cry.

desert poppy

This is the color of my spirit, I thought. This is the joy I’ve lost touch with.

A couple of weeks after that, I applied for the job in Hawaii and few weeks later the principal called to offer me the job. I’d told God that couldn’t face another month of idling, so even though the job was temporary, I accepted it as a gift straight from Heaven. Working with children had never been on my professional bucket list, but I’ve always loved kids, so I thought — why not? At the very least, it would be a break from financial stress and job searching. I was sure to learn something new. To stimulate and engage my mind again. The change might revive my energy and maybe the youthfulness of the students would slough away some of my calluses.

Now it’s December and my last week in Hawaii. It’s been seven months packed with rich experiences, far too many to recount here. The students did revive me. Everywhere I went on campus I’d hear, “Hello Chaplain Gustafson!” Sometimes it was Gusterson, Guftasin, or Gustussin, but it was always endearing. The children just saw me. They accepted me and loved me. I never felt like I had to prove myself to them or perform for them. I could just be me, offer whatever was in my spirit that day, and that was enough. This is the kind of hospitality that extended job searching had sucked out of my life.

One of the most beautiful things about Hawaiian culture is the tradition of giving a flower lei. Most visitors think this is a cute, touristy thing that only happens at the airport or in the lobbies of fancy hotels. For those who live here, giving a lei is a sign of affection and respect. You give one to mark a special achievement or occasion, but more importantly, to honor the recipient.

For almost every chapel I led this fall, the class helping me would present me with a lei. This ring of flowers always came with words of thanks and a hug that I would have to kneel to receive. Their variety and colors dazzled. Their sweet fragrance circled me all day, everywhere I went. With a lei around my neck, I couldn’t go unnoticed; their scent drew people to me.

10628512_10152564595396033_6805850627637071050_n10441180_10152560215611033_4391112806883448508_n1965470_10152434835876033_3472058209123031008_o10408813_10152530799931033_3399342177313543541_n10447705_10152566520361033_7692000281253738569_n
1400825_10152564596416033_3284993411088342605_o10154963_10152458796021033_6959451029884652036_n10389203_10152566520101033_8063201499236345565_n10703730_10152378132136033_3904679911730357551_n1609605_10152492203791033_5142464929531473611_n
Because of my story before Hawaii, lei have spiritual significance to me. Each time someone placed one around my neck, a piece of my exhaustion fell away. As flowers piled up, frustrations lost their weight. Just a few months ago I felt invisible and diminished, but now I feel strong and happy. Receiving these lei was like being hugged by God — there was no chance of staying small. Thanks to God, thanks to this job and a promise of a future job, and thanks to these beautiful, giving children, joy is a regular experience again. I’m in full bloom.

A few weeks ago I walked to work in a downpour. I waded through ankle-deep puddles, got splashed by passing cars and sighed as my umbrella leaked drops of cold rain on my head. I am not a morning person, so walking through a storm at 7am put me in a terrible mood. But as I passed the pool on my way to the chapel, there was a break in the gray clouds above the trees. Behind them I could see clear blue sky threaded with brilliant rays of sunlight.

10665810_10152530798706033_2276501508737226842_n

There I was, waterlogged and grumpy, but God was winking. Welcoming me to a new day. Reminding me that there are good things to come.

Seeing the break in the clouds, I smiled, and hoped.

The Day You Said “I Do”

wedding aisle

The year I graduated from college I received 17 wedding invitations. Though it was difficult to decide, I could only afford to attend a few, so I chose the weddings of my three closest friends. The first wedding was in a city church and the reception in an old bank building with 20-foot granite columns and gleaming green floors the color of dollar bills. The next was a homegrown affair in the bride’s backyard. The chickens, donkey and dogs were relocated for the day, a flower-covered arbor set in the corner with the grills far enough away so the smell of barbecue ribs and rocky mountain oysters wouldn’t be mistaken for the groom’s cologne. The bride and I spent four hours the night before baking batch after batch of rice krispy treats which we sculpted into a large castle, complete with turrets, for the many underage guests. The third wedding was a simple, elegant affair in a formal garden on an estate, followed by a dinner cruise which boasted an open bar and a DJ.

To date, I’ve probably attended around 40 weddings as well as fulfilling various roles at them: flower girl, guest book attendant, gift attendant, babysitter, cake server, song leader and soloist. I’ve been a bridesmaid four times and now, as a pastor, I’ve officiated a few weddings, one of which took place under a dripping palm tree at the wind-whipping tail end of an Arizona monsoon.

Weddings, I’ve learned, are as diverse as the couples they honor. But for all that diversity – for all the poignant walks down the aisle, the beautiful music, the first dances, the funny and sentimental toasts – nothing beats the moment when a couple takes their vows.

Vows are what make a wedding something more than a party we throw to celebrate our friends. When you stop and think about life and our culture, it’s truly an uncommon thing to stand before a public audience and before God, to pledge your life to someone else. Whether the language is formal or casual, traditional or unique, long-winded or concise, all vows say, in essence – I’m all in, forever, with you.

Even as a happy single person I am deeply affected by these moments, these vows. Pause and think of the magnitude of saying, I love you in such a way that I will put your needs before my own. The weight, both joyful and challenging, of living up to such love! Each marriage is a new creation, and vows are the moment of incarnation. My eyes are usually dry at weddings until the vows. That’s when my tears flow like cheap champagne; it’s a moment, an event, beautiful to behold.

Recently, though, I’ve been crying sad tears. It seems like every month I get a message or phone call from another friend whose marriage is in significant crisis. For the first time in my life I have a special prayer list just for couples. The list has grown to twelve names. The issues they battle are varied and complex: infidelity, loss of faith, mental health difficulties, conflict resulting from unanticipated change, stagnation, and things they can’t yet articulate. My friends are hurting and angry and afraid, and I hate that there is nothing I can do to fix it. All my prayers seem to turn out the same – God, I don’t know what they need, as individuals and as a couple, but you do. Provide what they need! Do it now.

As I’ve prayed, as my ear has grown hot against my cell phone – as I’ve pondered this creation we call marriage which seems as fine and fragile as bone china – I’ve felt moved to write a manifesto of sorts. So, if you are one of the friends I’m talking about, this part is for you.

As someone who loves you and who believes that marriage is a sacred thing, I make a public declaration and a commitment to you as you walk this valley of shadows. I do this because on the day you said, “I do,” I didn’t just show up for the wine and cake. When you said, “I’m all in,” in front of God and all of those witnesses, in my heart I said the same.

I wish I had a magic wand to erase the painful events, the misunderstandings, the words that can’t be taken back, the erupting diseases that brought you to this place, but we both know that magic wands are fairy-tale fluff. So I promise that I won’t try to diminish the giant monsters you are battling by giving you manufactured pearls of wisdom. If you’re looking for advice and I don’t know what to say, I’ll just say so. I may not have many – or any – answers, but I promise to listen long and well to your concerns.

I will doggedly remind you that you are not alone. Yes, you’ve discovered that a disintegrating marriage is one of the loneliest existences on earth, but you are not alone. Think of your wedding album, about the crowd in all those pictures. Many people love you and would consider it an honor to encircle you with support in this crisis, just as they did at your wedding. It takes courage to admit we don’t have it all together and deep faith to confess when things are falling apart. I will continue to encourage you to be faithful and courageous, which means regular reminders to care for yourself, to gather the support that you need, and to seek professional help. I will gently remind you that there is no shame in seeing a counselor; in fact, it’s a positive choice, a great, long-term investment in your personal and relational health and healing.

I promise to be a safe place for you to experience or express any emotion. You can use all kinds of colorful and “unacceptable” language and not worry that I won’t make eye contact tomorrow. You can yell or be silent. We can go kick-boxing or open the mega-pack of tissues from Costco.

And while everything is safe with me, I promise I won’t let you get away with unjust or dishonest speech about your spouse. Afterall, I hope (and deep down, under all these thorns, I believe you hope) that you will discover a way to healing and stay married until death parts you. Really loving you means that I have to be honest with you. I can’t only try to make you feel good if it leads to avoidance or denial; that isn’t the path to healing. So as difficult and risky as it might be, I will be honest with you about what I see, but I’ll do my best to infuse my honesty with compassion so it won’t sting too badly.

I promise to keep your confidence, but if I fail in this, I will confess and ask your forgiveness. And when I’m in company and free to speak, I will speak of both you and your spouse with respect.

I will pray without ceasing until these clouds pass.

And if the day comes when your marriage ends, I will never treat you like a failure.

These are my solemn vows. Hold me accountable to them. If I’ve hurt you, please tell me. If you need something more or something less from me, don’t hesitate to speak up. I may not be able to give you what you need, but I promise to be here, to listen, to remind you of God’s love and forgiveness, to be your friend in sickness and in health, in grief and gladness.

May gladness be your epilogue.

Lily of the Valley symbolizes a return to happiness.

Lily of the Valley symbolizes a return to happiness.

Doctor of Goodwill

Woman: (laying in bed, looking at a man passing the doorway to her room) Who was that?
Chaplain: That is your doctor. He’s going to come visit you to see how you are doing.
Woman: Oh, another doctor!
Chaplain: You haven’t seen a doctor already this morning, have you?
Woman: I mean you, dear.
Chaplain: (chuckling with a smile) I’m not a doctor.
Woman: Yes, you are!
Chaplain: (Thinking she’s getting confused. She has Alzheimer’s.) Oh, really? Well, what kind of doctor am I?
Woman: (grasping my hand and smiling) You are the doctor of goodwill.

_________

People assume that being a hospice chaplain would be depressing; they are wrong. Everyday my patients inspire and encourage me.

Death is sad because it always involves loss, but death also has the potential to spark something good within us. The expertise of the dying is passing on life to another human being — this I am learning.

I receive and hold their spirit as a precious gift.