Celebrating the Good Moments #2

TODAY’S ADOPTION QUESTION!

Steve & I are often asked what advice we’d give someone considering adoption from foster care. It can be hard to answer, because I want to tell everyone all the things, yet I’m aware that each experience is really unique and not everything will apply. But yesterday afternoon I realized one thing that is universal:

REALLY enjoy the good moments. 

I know that sounds cliche. But seriously. Do it.

When things go well, notice it, savor it, write down what happened in a journal, snap pictures if you can. Tell the story of the good thing that happen to anyone who might listen. Replay them over and over in your mind so that they become integrated into your internal soundtrack of what your life is like right now.

Stressful memories will accumulate on their own. You’ve got to intentionally stockpile good ones.

In your early months as a new adoptive placement, once the honeymoon phase wears off and you’re not all tiptoeing around one another anymore, there comes a time where it feels like your life used to be a nice snow globe…but then it got knocked off the table and landed upside down in the trash. Nothing is the way it used to be, you’re not sure how to rebuild your life from the pieces you can find, and everyone is exhausted from the new emotional demands of creating a family out of strangers. (That’s not bad news, and it’s not forever. It’s just an unavoidable stage.)

So when you get good moments, they are like GOLD.

But if you’re too focused on the stress of rebuilding, or lost staring at the piles of your former life, you will miss these moments.

Don’t.

Yesterday, I was home with my son after school. He asked if he could cook mac & cheese for a snack. He expected me to say no (that child needs protein!) but my lifelong understanding that mac & cheese = happiness won out, and I said yes. Then the moment came: He wasn’t sure how to make it, would I help?

cy-mac-n-cheese

Now, you ALL know that I am unlikely to have many “let me teach you my favorite recipe” moments with my children. It’s taken me 12 years to figure out basic dinners. But mac & cheese is my THING! I made it in a plug-in kettle in college, a microwave in law school, my little apartment stove in Philadelphia, and the “real” stove I had in D.C., where my Italian roommate (who was practically a chef, just via genetics) watched on, horrified and amused by my enthusiasm. Teaching #1 Cherub to make mac & cheese is closest thing I’ll have to a culinary legacy. So I took pictures, and made all kinds of jokes about how much his future wife will love this special recipe, passed down from his Mom :)

cy-mac-n-chees-2

How much is THIS DOG hoping that some of those shells fall out of that pan???

It was a good moment, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

Celebrating The Good Moments #1

EARLY Sunday morning, I saw a post from my friend Stephanie Elliot  on Facebook that inspired me to ditch the whole second half of my sermon to make room to share the story of how she handled years of rejection and disappointment in her writing career.

Her book comes out today :) 

I know Steph in real life (if you’re a longtime blog reader, you may remember this road trip from Chicago to Wisconsin in a tornado with my friends Manic Mom & Swishy? Manic Mom = Steph!) She overcame SO MANY NO’s to get to this very big YES in her writing career. She inspires me with her perseverance. She understood that if anyone was getting their books published, then it was possible for her, too. And here she is!  I’ll be waiting out on my porch all day for my copy of  Sad Perfect to arrive. It’s YA, a hardcover book for just over $10, and has GREAT early reviews. Looking to escape into a good story with a personal connection? You should click over and grab a copy, too. Congratulations, Steph! xoxo

On a related note…Lent begins tomorrow!

img_5005

In He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, I devote a whole chapter to my first experience of Lent and how pivotal it was early in my faith. There have been some rocky years since then, but this year, our church is reclaiming this observation as an opportunity to take a chance on God once again. If you don’t have plans for Lent, join us!

Everything you need is on the Greenhouse Mission Site:

The Study Guide tells you a bit more about my experiences with Lent, as well as how we’re approaching it this year through three traditional practices: Bible Study, Prayer & Fasting. You can do these on your own, or with friends. (I do better with the buddy system to keep me afloat, but it works with just you & Jesus, too.) Each week we’ll post a Weekly Bible Guide  with links to the daily reading, along with some thoughts on the passage and ideas for prayer. There will also be sermons you can listen to, book recommendations, and – God willing – some cool testimonies of what God is doing in our lives. I hope you’ll join us from wherever you are (and I mean that both geographically and spiritually :) )  Let me know if you’re joining in, and how it’s going. It’s good to cheer each other on and believe together.

(Looking for today’s Adoption Answer? It’s here, in a second post!)

 

Adoption, faith & the 1st thing we’d do differently.

Today’s question comes from Donny:

Religion is a big part of your life – how are you raising the kids within a faith-based environment and why is it important to you and Steve?

One thing Steve & I have learned over the past 2 years is that our Christian faith is THE THING that gets us through the rockier patches of adoption. But it’s also THE THING that has the most “What the heck? I didn’t sign up for THIS!” response from the Cherubs.

The Cherubs ask us repeatedly, “But why didn’t you TELL US  you were Christians?” I never know what to say. We didn’t withhold it. I’m pretty sure it came up the second time we met them.  But in the same way we didn’t tell them at our first meeting that Steve watches every Bruins game, or that I love to sing but can’t carry a tune, faith seems like something you show more than you tell. To say, “We’re Christians” seems meaningless without context, especially as something they were being invited into.

But in hindsight, there’s something we could have done to ease this process.

When the kids’ social worker, Janna, first told them about us, she brought them photo-books Steve & I put together to introduce ourselves and give them a glimpse into their new lives. (Walgreens did an amazing job with these.) This way they wouldn’t be left to wonder what we looked like, or what our house looked like, or our dog. It gave them something tangible to look at as they struggled to wrap their minds around this strange new reality.

[Because not much is stranger than being told that you’re going to meet new people tomorrow, and those people will be  your new parents.] 

We personalized a photo book for each of them. The opening page had pictures of us, with notes about our jobs, hobbies, how we met, etc. Of course there were pictures of Bergie. (We suspected – correctly – that she would be a selling point even when they weren’t too sure about us.) There were pics of the outside of our house, and of the rooms that would become their bedrooms. Then we showed some shots from around our city, including their new school and some local places where they and their future friends might hang out.

(Note: We can’t take credit for the photo-book idea. It was suggested in our MAPP training class, one of many ideas and resources that helped us during this process.)

I thought of including something about faith in their photo books, but I couldn’t figure out what to use for a picture. We weren’t attending a particular church at the time, so I couldn’t anchor the concept with a building. And a picture of a Bible seemed daunting and heavy, which isn’t us at all. We enjoy our faith – it’s a fun, empowering part of our lives. Since they’d be living it out with us, it seemed like something best explained in person.

In hindsight, we probably should have used a picture of a beach or a sunset, or even of a page in one of my books where I describe what it was like to get to know Jesus. Something to suggest that this was important to us, and help start the conversation about what that means. I’m not sure it would have made the Cherubs more amenable to faith, but at least they wouldn’t feel like it snuck up on them.

Even though the Cherubs aren’t always psyched to be Christian, Steve and I really are. There have been countless times when we’ve said to each other, “Only Jesus can help us now!” Sometimes we’re being funny, but other times – when we’re discouraged and at the end of ourselves – it feels like the absolute truth. I think parenting might be like this generally, but adoption is especially so – we just don’t have what it takes. We don’t. Steering and shepherding another person’s life is too big an endeavor, especially when you come into a life that’s already well in progress. So in the moments when I don’t have vision for a good future for them, or for us…I know for sure that God does. And so I say that, repeatedly: “Jesus, thank you that you love these kids,  that you have a plan for their lives, and that it’s a good plan. Thank you that you have what they need even when I don’t. Bless them and help them…”

Shockingly, it works. There’s something about not being in it alone, about not being the biggest authority in the room, about having spiritual power available when earthly power is fruitless, that makes SUCH tangible difference in our lives.

Jesus saves my bacon, time and time again. No joke.

Now that they’ve been around it awhile, the Cherubs see this, too. Our church recently started a Life Group that meets on Wednesday nights. It’s massively inconvenient for us to get there – the kids have to rush through dinner and bring their homework, and the drive + parking takes forever. But after the second or third week, they noticed how much of a difference that time with friends in prayer & scripture study makes in our happiness.  #2 Cherub has said to me more than once when I’m worried or stressed, “You’ll feel better after Life Group.” #1 Cherub has asked Steve to pray for him about different things. And they both tell us about people and situations, asking if we can pray for them as a family. By watching us live out our faith day to day, they’re absorbing the understanding that this gives us access to help we wouldn’t have otherwise.

That’s the WHY for us. We want our kids to have access to all that God has for them, and the way to that is Jesus. But we can’t just say that. We have to live it, and answer questions about why we do things this way, and give them the chance to make it their own.

Only God knows what the Cherubs’ faith journeys will look like down the line. But we want them to have a foundation to work from – something specific to respond to, wrestle with, make decisions about – rather than leaving them awash in all the possibilities of all the religions. To walk in ANY direction, you need something to stand on.

In the Bible, God promises that if we “train up a child in the way that they should go, when they are older they will not depart from it.”  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will live their faiths exactly like we do. It just means that Jesus will guard and guide them, steering them back to his best again and again.

***

Tomorrow, I’ll dive into HOW we’re doing this, and what it’s been like to plant a new church in the middle of our adoption process.

Thanks Donny, for the great question :)

Give God 5 Years

This weekend I was texting with a friend from MAPP class, who is also adopting. “Can you believe how much has changed in just a year?” I asked.

At exactly this time last year, we were in our final adoption-licensing class. I’ll tell you more about the whole thing in another post, but suffice to say that that morning, I was not capable of comprehending that in one year, I’d be waking up at 5:45am to drink coffee before getting kids off to our local middle school, trying to remember to make them dentist appointments, and deciding how much to push a cherub who is not excelling in one academic subject when s/he is a rockstar in the others.

Life has changed SO MUCH.

It makes me think of another conversation I had 6 or 7 years ago with a different friend. She was new to Christianity, but had been exploring faith for just long enough that the initial, “Wow, this explains everything!” feeling had worn off, and she was looking for more tangible life improvements. We all go through this, I think: Jesus promises abundant life, so we look around and ask, “So, um, where is it?”

(By the way, I think this is a totally fair question, and Jesus can handle the pressure of being put on the spot about His promises.)

“Give God five years,” I told her.

She looked at me like I was nuts.

“Here’s the thing,” I said.  “Sometimes, God comes through before we even have the chance to ask for something. We all love those moments. But other times, He needs to move some things around. In us, around us, in people we haven’t even met yet, or places we’ve never seen. God has both short and long game, and we don’t always know what’s what. But give Him five years. If you really want your life to be different, I believe it will be.”

When I offered these earnest words (after which I thought, “Well Jesus, I just bought you some time. It would be great if You came through…”) I had no idea how intensely they’d apply to MY life, as well.

I thought things were pretty well established back then. Sure there were a few areas of disappointment. If my life was a house, I kind of knew it could use the equivalent of a paint job and some new windows. Instead, God tore it down to the studs and started over.

God has changed EVERYTHING over the past five years. Aside from Steve, my contact lens prescription, and one favorite pair of jeans, every part of my life is different than it was in 2010:

-I live in a different house

-in a new town

-with two new people.

-I have THIS DOG instead of THAT DOG.

-Steve works for a different company.

-The publishing world is rebuilding after a bit of a collapse, so I’m encouraged.

-We’re rebuilding our church family after a bit of a collapse, so I’m encouraged.

-I’ve used the treadmill we bought more for running than as a hanger for clothes, so I’m encouraged.

All in all, it’s pretty groovy. But it’s taken a full five years.

Here’s what I’m learning: if you’re looking at Jesus today and thinking, “Hey, whatever abundant is, I don’t think THIS is it,” that’s okay. (Snarky, frustrated prayer = still prayer).

Think about the things you’d like to be different; the places you’re discouraged, or have lost hope, or see happening around you that seem out of reach. Or just take a couple of things you’re furious about. Whatever. Give Jesus five years. Mark the calendar. Tell Him this: I’ll do what You suggest, I’ll go where You lead if You make Your instructions clear to me. You promised that you’d light up my path and guide me, so I’m taking you up on that promise.

It’s not the quickest path, or the flashiest. I mean, sure, seeing people miraculously healed and lives miraculously transformed is incredibly cool. It’s great to not feel shame about my treadmill. But let’s be honest – following Jesus? Socially awkward.

Still totally worth it.

Teaching The Cherubs About Faith

Once Steve & I met The Cherubs, we began thinking about how to teach them about faith. About Jesus, specifically, and the Bible, and why these things matter so much to us that we’ve built our lives around them.

The first step, we thought, was to find a church, one that would (hopefully) become a spiritual home for us as a newly formed family.  So we started visiting on Sundays.

The first church we visited had a kids’ curriculum based on a Jesus who taught morality: things like, Don’t be a bully and Be nice to people in need. Our kids seemed to have picked up on those lessons already, so we kept looking.

The second place we went looked so impressive as we walked in. The building was enormous – there was a 3 story fountain in the foyer. But beyond that, we loved how diverse it was. It reminded us of our life back in Cambridge, and how when people don’t look alike, you get to figure out what you have in common based on who you actually are. It’s a pretty cool way to live.

A volunteer proudly led us to the WING of the building that housed their youth/young adult program.  It was jaw-dropping. In the class for 5th graders, there was (I’m not even kidding) a 20-something guy doing a hula-hoop by the door, greeting the kids as they walked in. Behind him there were video screens with games on them, foosball and ping-pong tables, and an arts corner that could rival any classroom at RISD. Down the hall was the space for the junior high & high school kids, only this wasn’t a class, it was a cafe. Dim lighting, giant couches, more video games, pool tables. I felt like we’d fast forwarded ahead 6 or 7 years and were now touring colleges.

But when we left that day, we knew that church wasn’t for us, either. We don’t want to teach our kids that church is primarily entertainment, or that the main value is whether or not they’re having fun.

While I’d prefer that The Cherubs not hate church, I don’t really care if they love it.

This is, I suspect, because I grew up Catholic. In Catholic church, NOBODY CARES if the kids are enjoying themselves. Or the adults, for that matter. The whole point of Mass is that it’s not about you, it’s about Jesus, and we are all there to receive something from Him we need and cannot get any other way. So in every Catholic church you will see toddlers running toy cars across the pews, middle schoolers squirming and zoning out, and high schoolers trying not to get caught staring at the cute guy or girl three rows up.  And as they play and zone and oggle, they absorb information about God. Some of it might be the specific message of the day (although I remember very little of that – I needed ten years of Protestant Bible study before I could even understand what was going on at Mass). But there’s also a sense of priority – that faith matters enough to invest an hour a week, even if it’s boring, and a sense of belonging – you are part of the family of God, and when the sh*t hits the fan in your life, you know where God lives. Even if you’ve never connected with Him there before, you have a place to start now.

That’s what happened for both Steve and me: When we sensed God speaking to us about taking Jesus seriously, we had a starting point.

I think there’s a lot to this. So for the past few months (after we visited a third church that had all the kids DANCE in front of the whole congregation to a song our kids had never heard before) we’ve been doing church at home, here in our living room. It’s been fantastic. The Cherubs are relieved. Sometimes on long drives we listen to podcast sermons from a church we love in Hawaii, led by friends of ours who used to live up here. (We’ve listened to so many of these that the Cherubs now consider Pastor Jordan their friend, too, and #2 Cherub wanted to hit him up for a magazine subscription in last week’s school fundraising debacle.)

***

As we teach the Cherubs about faith, we try to give them spiritual tools they can use right now. (For example, #2 Cherub has a big event at school today and asked us all to pray.) But more than that, we’re trying to situate them within the larger faith, a larger family, and a larger way of seeing what is possible and what Jesus offers that they cannot get anywhere else.

As with most things, the results are mixed. Yesterday, I had this conversation:

Cherub: My throat hurts!

Me: Aw…can I pray for you right now?

Cherub: (rolls eyes) It doesn’t hurt THAT much.

But just a week ago, I when Steve was home sick, that same Cherub blurted, “Please God, heal Steve!” Now, the motivation was that she needed Steve’s help with something later, but still, I’m excited that they’re picking up on the truth that when there’s nothing WE can do, there’s still a lot God can do. They’ve seen us do this, and so they’re trying it out.

It’s not what we expected, but it’s what God is doing, so we’re going with it.

I’m learning that our kids are picking up more about life with Jesus from watching us live it than from anything else they encounter.  So I’m trying to live it BIG, so they get to see all the ways it plays out- the impossibilities and possibilities it offers – and why it means so much.

And in this, I’m holding on to this vision of church – A place where we connect with Jesus, are encouraged & challenged in our mission, get pushed into absurd situations that could only be orchestrated by God, and get to see miracles as a result. Where people whose faith we admire help fill in the gaps we’re unsure about, just as we help them do the same.

Easier said than done, I know. I guess what I’m saying is this: don’t settle for a foosball table & an earnest kid with a hula hoop, if that feels like “not what I’d hoped for but I guess it’s good enough.” It might be enough – bless that hula guy! But if it isn’t for you, trust that feeling.

***

A few weeks ago, when a friend asked me how it feels to finally have children after so many years of praying, I told her this:

I see now that when God comes through, it doesn’t feel like you’re settling. I don’t feel like I’ve settled. I feel 100% like these precious Cherubs are THE KIDS I’m supposed to raise. I’m astonished that life can feel this good.

The same applies to wanting a great marriage, or meaningful work…or a church family that feels like home, where you and the ones you love (along with a few you’re not so crazy about) absorb and try out what it means to be Jesus-ey. A place where we and realize that the gifts and promises are for us, too. If any area of life right now feels like you’re settling, then God is not done yet.

Praying

The other night a friend & I had a long conversation about prayer, and how weird it is when the challenge of your faith shifts: When it’s less about the fear that you’ll disappoint God, and more fear that God might disappoint you.

I’m not in that season right now. But I’ve been there. And I figure it will come again someday, because that’s how seasons work.

When you’re in those times, you realize that while it’s true that God delights in blessing us, He also has a larger mission going on, and we don’t necessarily know  our role. Faced with this reality, it’s tough to know how to pray…or if prayer even matters.

Early in my faith life (the Christian part), the main image I was given for prayer was this: that there are these bowls in heaven that receive our prayers. When the bowls are filled, an angel adds incense and some sort of heavenly power, and then POW! There’s an explosion and the angel pours the bowl out onto the earth in answer to our prayers.  It’s based on this passage from the Biblical book, Revelation. From this, it seemed easy to surmise that there was an order of magnitude for certain prayers: world peace required a bigger bowl than relief from seasonal allergies.

I LOVED having such a tangible picture. I went after the HUSBAND prayer bowl like it was my job.  And that prayer was answered rather directly (even though it felt like it took forever at the time).

But prayer has never worked that way for me since. In other ways, to be sure. But never the thing with the bowl. Recently, as I re-read that scene in Revelation, I realized that we’d taken that passage completely out of context. If you keep reading, the Bible doesn’t describe a flood of answered prayers flung throughout the earth. Rather, after the prayers and incense in the bowls, after the pouring out and the lightening/earthquake power, come seven trumpets that unleash, one by one, SEVEN HORRIFIC WOES, and the destruction of a good part of the world. Essentially, it’s the beginning of the end.

We prayed for this for years, dutifully filling up the bowls. Bless our (driven, results-oriented) clueless little hearts.

I’m not that into speculating about the end of the world, but it strikes me that the temptation to make God and prayer, and the realization of our dreams, seem attainable and manageable seems more like a lie than a blessing. But the truth is revealed, eventually, and we’re left to reckon with this counterfeit version of what a real relationship with God looks like.

That’s what my friend and I discussed. How the real thing is complicated. We disappoint, and are disappointed. We’re also blessed beyond measure and loved more than we could ever know.  It’s both/and, in the most frustrating way.

And that’s okay.

We pray on. We wing it. We talk to God like He’s our friend or boyfriend or some random person we met in an airport. Really, it depends on the day. I’m not sure what it means or how prayers do or don’t add up. But I’ve found that somehow, things are better when I engage God than when I shut Him out.

And yet I’ve also learned that it’s okay to take a break. To let your silence do the talking. God can handle that too, and it doesn’t mean we’re leaving some heavenly bowls half-filled.

This is the upside to there being no real system…it makes it possible for us to be real with God in every season.

Shalom Shattered

Last night I was going through documents on my computer, trying to bring order to the chaos.  I found notes from a talk I gave a couple of years ago at a women’s retreat in Maryland, called “Shalom Shattered.” It stuck with me, especially after reading Sarah Bessey’s blog yesterday about how reluctant we are to admit (let alone deal with) trauma.

***

The retreat coordinator had asked me to talk about my experiences with faith & friendship. in the first session, I’d shared about the first time I’d tiptoed, terrified but intrigued, into a CHRISTIAN church (I thought of that word in all caps back then, so strange was it to me) after years of running my life via astrology, feng shui, and whatever new spiritual ideas I found in the New Age aisle at Barnes & Noble. I told them about the friends I made at that church, and how well they’d loved me even when I was a complete pain in the ass, and how they’d stuck around during the extensive, messy process of Jesus sorting me out. I love telling that story, because it illustrates so clearly how God puts people up around us like protective bumpers to keep life from crushing us as we’re being transformed.

But to keep things honest, I knew I ALSO had to tell these young, eager, tattooed hipster Jesus-loving girls the rest of the story. How, like any writer knows, the key point in any plot outline is Shalom Shattered, the moment when your perfect world is blown to smithereens.

That was talk #2.

In an effort to keep things light, I illustrated my story by asking for volunteers to come up front and be passengers in an imaginary boat. I lined them up with signs that designated different leaders from that same church that had been so central in my life, and then described the ways they’d fallen (or jumped, or sometimes pushed others) out of the boat. I described how the rest of us, flabbergasted by this turn of events, had turned on each other with accusations, how thick layers of mistrust settled in.  I described the sadness of watching that beloved boat sink, and the frustration of knowing we couldn’t ever go back there, because there was no there to go back to.

Thankfully, by this time I had a couple of years between me and these events, so I had some hope to share. Because one of the things I learned during that season was this: Just because we look around and think, All hope is lost, doesn’t mean that God agrees.

Around that time, I read this Proverb I’d never noticed before that says, “What the wicked dreads will overtake him; what the righteous desires will be granted.” (Proverbs 10:24)

It prompted me to ask: How much of my thought life was now devoted to dread? (A lot.) What did I desire? (I had no idea.) It felt like I’d witnessed a huge collision between good and evil, and I had a choice to make about what I’d look at and for.

-If I chose to look at blank spot on the water where the boat used to be, it was easy to believe that the disappointment, pain and heartbreak would keep accumulating; that loss was our new normal. This was so easy to imagine.

-But if I chose to look at God, He hinted that something better was possible.

I wanted to focus on God. But it was hard.  I was so clear on my dread, and it was so easy to replay all the things that had been said about me (or even right to me) as these friendships blew up: That I was uppity, too full of myself, bossy, flighty, lazy, too big for my britches, rebellious, attention grabbing, too guarded, and even dishonest.  I was terrified that those angry, hurt, scared former friends might be right. What if I was all those terrible things, and I just didn’t see it?

And yet bumping up against this litany of accusation was the voice of one wise new friend (who’d been through something similar about a decade earlier). He’d asked me, “How can you ever prove that you’re NOT something? All we can do is show who we ARE.”

He was so right.

This left me with a new struggle: who was I without my church, without my friends? Who did God want me to be? At a basic level, If I wanted to exchange my dread for desire, that meant I had to desire something.

You’d think this would have been easy, but it wasn’t. My dread felt safe, familiar, and even responsible. It felt like the smart thing to do was to focus on those accusations and somehow remake myself into someone BETTER. (By which I meant someone to whom this awful, painful process could never happen again).

But every single plan I’ve ever had to remake myself has failed. Every. Single. Plan.

I sat there, caught between handing off my dread and having nothing to grab in its place. And as I sat, God quietly planted seeds of desire in me, seeds I knew nothing about until they started popping up like little blades of grass. They were pretty pedestrian, truth be told:

-I wanted to live in a suburb, not in the city.

-I wanted a family.

-I wanted real friends.

-I wanted my life to have purpose. (I kept trying to yank this last seed out of the ground, because wasn’t it PROOF that I was full of myself and attention grabbing? But God kept pushing it down deeper in the dirt, away from my grubby hands.)

I didn’t even water theses seeds. I was sure they’d die. I couldn’t let myself get attached. It was too scary to REALLY want, so I just sort of shoved these wants off in their own corner, like someone else’s groceries being stored in my fridge for a few days.

But despite my neglect (or perhaps because of it) these seeds shot up through the ground. They were surprisingly sturdy. They had buds on them, and signs of sweet fruit. Where there was nothing, God planted new somethings. It was a thing to behold, and I can’t take credit for any of it, because I was just sitting there trying not to be a terrible person.

After sharing all this, I invited the retreat women into an exercise, asking each of them to write down a dread they wanted to trade in.  Then we crumpled up our dread, gave it to Jesus, and asked Him to give us desire, instead.

The results of this talk were mixed, truth be told. At first, there were tears of hope and joy as women filed forward, paper in hand, crumpling up their fears at the foot of the giant cross (placed next to a giant buffalo head) at the front of the room. Throughout that day, so many of those woman took me aside to share desires God had whispered to them, asking me to believe with them that they might be real.

But the next week when I got home, I received a message from the pastor’s wife. She expressed concern for my plight, and suggested I join a church she’d found online that was an hour away, because all believers really should be in a church.

***

Looking back on this retreat experience two years later, I see how most things are like this, actually: The results are mixed, we don’t get to know the full story, and we have to believe way out beyond what we can see, trusting that if God tells us to do something, that means something, and it will amount to something that matters.

I wish we got to see more. I wish the seeds of my current life hadn’t been planted in scorched earth. I wish I could have hopped into my car, driven to that church an hour away, and replaced all those lost friendship with a smile and a prayer.

But that’s not how life (or God) works. Loss leads to new life. But it’s still loss. That’s okay. In heaven, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, of the old order of things will have passed away.  But for now, we’re here. We dry our tears, choose where to look (at what we dread or for God’s desire) and head out into each new day the best we can, looking for signs of heaven here on earth.

I’ve found that it’s worth the effort.

Three Books & What They Mean to Me This Week

It has been a fabulous reading week for me. I’ll tell you about three books I’ve loved, and then a bit about what I’m trying to do with what they’ve taught me. Consider it part of Project Stretch & Grow. (Which is not actually a project, but makes me smile when I think of it that way.)

UnknownOut of Sorts: Making Peace with An Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey.  While the title makes this sound like a memoir of frustration with God and His church, it’s anything but. Open these pages and you’ll find a love letter about the tiny ways God has lead Bessey over and under, around and through the challenges of a grown-up faith.  Her writing style is so warm and inviting, it made me want to fly to the far end of Canada to sit with her on her porch and drink tea. And I don’t even like tea.

The other thing that made me love this book – and her – happened when she mentioned John Wimber and I discovered  that she’s part of my tribe. She’s a Vineyarder, too, part of the “happy clappy” group of us who believe that God still acts today, that everyone who wants to gets to play a part in bringing His Kingdom here to earth, and that it’s not really a church service unless a third of the people are moved to holy tears. (Seriously. We cry a lot. It’s a strange Holy Spirit thing you learn to make your peace with and be grateful for whoever stocks the tissues.)

Whether you consider yourself happy-clappy, agitated or agitating, or in need of a hug and a good cry, this is a wonderful book.

51jWSQj3EuLWherever the River Runs: How a Forgotten People Renewed My Hope In the Gospel. I’m not sure how I found this book but I’m so glad I did. I started it yesterday and I’m almost finished – it’s that good. Minter shares her story of an unexpected trip to the Amazon (the river, not the corporate conglomerate) and how seeing pastors serving the poor there forced her to rethink her life back here in the U.S.

There are lots of “Third World Missions Trip” memoirs, but a few things set this one apart. First, Minter goes back to this place year after year. She didn’t just collect a few pictures for her Instagram account and call it a day. She is invested in specific people with whom she has long-term relationships. She knows what questions to ask each year when she returns because she knows people well enough to care about their individual lives.  Second, she didn’t come back to the States to jettison all her belongings and live some sort of Poster-Child, “look at me” life. Her consideration of the differences between these two parts of the world are far more nuanced and thoughtful than I’ve seen before. I really appreciated her honesty. And finally, she’s just such a wonderful writer…it sounds cheesy to say, but the book reads like a smooth trip down a fragrant, vibrant river. It opened my eyes and soothed my soul, and made me want to live a better life.

Unknown-1One for the Murphy’s: A Novel.  I read this book at #2 Cherub’s recommendation. She is a voracious reader, with a strong preference for what she calls “realistic fiction.” I’ve learned that to her, realistic means kids in impossible situations: foster care, severe disability, inability to perform basic life skills.  She has great taste in books, and I’ve learned to trust her recommendations, even though (or perhaps because) they take me places I might not otherwise go.

One for the Murphy’s is the story of Carly, a girl who has been taken into foster care and is arriving at her first foster home. It is gripping. The author captures both the intense stress of Carly’s situation and the everyday normal things she’s wrestling with at the same time. (I mean, how weird is it that we expect kids who’ve suddenly been placed with complete strangers to still take the scheduled math & vocabulary quizzes the next day?) The great thing about this book is that Carly is a sweet, relatable protagonist – you’re really rooting for her – and her foster mom is one of the good ones.  I’m so glad I read this book, even though it made me cry at the end. If you’re looking for a glimpse into this world, One for the Murphy’s is a good place to start.

***

As I mentioned yesterday, this is a season of effort and stretching for me. I feel like these books are challenging me to recognize that there’s still this whole big world rotating while I’m staring at my freezer wondering what to make for dinner. And there are ways I can interact with this world – practically, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally – even as I feel the boundaries tightening on my little corner of the Universe.

-There are kids in foster care who are waiting to be adopted. I can look at these pictures and pray for these children individually – for their “forever families” to come soon and be awesome, and also for whatever tests they might have in school later today. And I can shout from the top of the internet rooftop what a HUGE blessing it is to have welcomed two middle school kids into my family.

-There are people around the globe sorting out what Jesus’ promise of abundant life means when you have no home and very little food. I can ponder Kelly Minter’s wise observation that “If the good news of Jesus’ Gospel is only good news in America, than it is not good,” and ask God to recalibrate my perspective, even as I click on the keys that send some of my resources their way.

-And somewhere out there, there’s a 20, 30 or 40-something woman who, like me, senses that God might be trying to tell her something and would love help figuring out what that means and how to respond. I was blessed to have a community of people willing and able to help me, and now I can help make that happen for others. (Here’s the quick version: if you’re near Honolulu, Hawaii, you can find a community, and some of the same people who loved me, here. If you’re somewhere else, try here and see if God leads you to a group of people singing songs, praying, and holding boxes of tissue.)

I want to use my words and my life to point to God’s Kingdom as it pops up here on earth, and say, “This is for you, too! It’s for all of us!”  It sounds grandiose…which is why I’m grateful for these books, and how they remind me that in real life, this happens in a million small ways. My goal this week is to add a few to the pile.

***

Disclosure: I received a copy of Out of Sorts from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I obtained Wherever the River Runs & One for the Murphy’s from my local library. I’ll be asking for all three of these books for Christmas, because they’re ones I want to own.

The struggle to write about how I still have faith

Sometimes people ask me how I still have my faith after all that we’ve been through. I never know what to say. The truth is, I’ve been trying to figure that out for the better part of two years now.  Memoir #3 is hopelessly bogged down in this quagmire, my narrative arc looking like a half-built boat: it has a bow and a stern, but no center – the center being the place where God swooped in built new life atop the ruins of my blown-out world.  I’m missing the “Beauty from Ashes” chapters, because for the life of me, I can’t figure out what happened. 

There are few things more frustrating than reading a memoir that draws you into pages and pages of loss & sadness, stops cold with a single blank page to suggest a break in the narrative, then plunges you right into “Oh look! It’s all better now!”

I’m determined to fill that blank middle page.

Yesterday I sat down at my computer to figure it out. I decided to use numbers instead of paragraphs, because that would FORCE my story to cooperate, right? I mean, numbers DEMAND order, and I was DONE with chaos.

Here’s what I came up with: (cut & pasted directly from yesterday’s Word doc)

How I kept my faith:

  1. I didn’t. I gave it up entirely. (Which I guess means I was honest with God for the first time in awhile.)
  2. I stopped praying. I no longer believed it worked, and if it didn’t work, why do it? It felt weird to whizz by stranded motorists on the highway without asking God to bless and help them, but whatever. I called 911 instead.
  3. I stopped reading my Bible. It was filled with passages that clearly weren’t true, because I’d seen them be not true in real time. I was tired of twisting my mind into ridiculous excuses for God.
  4. I stopped going to church. My mind was screaming, “No. God is not good all the time. He’s not that simple, and life is not that easily explained.” There was no church where this was an okay thing to say, so I stopped going to church.
  5. I stopped feeling. Feelings were not helpful to me in this season, so I ignored them.
  6. I shut up. I refused to “process” this with people who kept trying to fix me, and only admitted what was happening to my husband and the one trusted friend who had never tried to fix me before.  Steve pulled out his copy of The Power of a Praying Husband and gave me extra long hugsmy friend said, “I’m fine with that. I totally understand why you’d be done with God after everything that’s happened,” then prayed for me behind my back. This might be the most important survival decision I’ve ever made.

A couple of years later, I heard my friend Jordan give a talk about how, during one terrible season of his life, he practiced living like he was dead. I thought, “Oh, I know exactly how that feels.”

***

That’s as far as I got yesterday. I was cracking up with giggles as I wrote it. It’s so not what you ever read about in inspirational books, at least not in the chapters about God restoring things! These are usually the pre-redemption chapters, the ones where you can tell that your main character is about to come face-to-face with the horror of her sinful ways. But nope. That’s not what happened.  All of this purging, as I chucked all of the stuff I’d been taught I HAD to do as a follower of Jesus, is, I think, what gave God room to do whatever it is He did to help me believe again.

I used to say that all we need for Jesus to transform us is to be willing, to invite him in. Now I think, Nope. Even that’s not necessary. 

I don’t get God. At all. That’s as it should be, I guess. I live in the tension of what was lost and what’s been found, and I have NO IDEA how to write the middle section of this story, because who wants to read 6 chapters about all the things I was not doing? But for the story to have any sort of integrity, structural or otherwise, I have to figure this out. So today I’ll pull out that Word doc and wrestle on.

If you’re in a space where all hope is lost, and you don’t give a damn about God or the rules or what well-intentioned people tell you about how you MUST do this or that, I give you permission: Walk away. Who knows? In a few months or a few years, you might have a story that has no discernible middle, but yet hints of a happier ever after than seems possible right now.

That’s the story I want to tell – the happier ending, the one where nothing makes sense but life is somehow better. But as a writer, I have to earn that ending. I have to figure out the middle.

The Remaking

It’s been an interesting week for me artistically.

I’m listening to three songs from Nichole Nordeman’s long-awaited new project, The UnmakingThe basic theme is that sometimes God tears down all the things we build and leaves us standing there, wondering what to do next. Then He rebuilds in ways we never could have imagined. As she says in a promo video, “This was a song I wrote in great hopefulness, after a season of great hopelessness.”

I’m reading Jenny Simmon’s new memoir, The Road to Becoming, about how she lived this exact experience: how her years of touring with the band Addison Road literally blew up when an RV with everything they owned caught fire and burned to the ground. (There’s more to it than that, of course, but that was the straw that took out the camel).  She admits that a year of things breaking lead to her becoming the worst possible version of herself, after which a friend said, “This is the best night of your life, because Jenny, you are about to see God be God.”

I’m thinking about Ryanhood’s CD, After Night Came Sun, and how pretty much every song on that album speaks of this same agony – dashed dreams, disappointment, wondering what on earth to do next and how to keep believing in God.  And how Princess Peach loved one song on that album, the one where they shout out in the middle of the chorus, “I’m falling apart!”

Amidst all this, as I’m remembering the seemingly endless ways my own life ended between 2009-2014, all I can think is, “Holy sh*t! Did ALL the Jesus-ey artists have our lives RUINED during those 5 years? You mean it wasn’t just me?!?”

It’s incredibly comforting not to feel so alone.

Steve and I are on the other side of this season now, THANK YOU JESUS.  (I say that not in a pious, “I always knew he’d come through!” way, but rather with the grateful fatigue of someone who thought she was taking a gentle 2 mile hike but ended up wandering across some stupid mountain range until way past dark, and is sort of astounded to have finally made it back to the parking lot.) We have a new home, new jobs, new cherubs, new hope in what God can do when all that’s left is ashes and rubble and empty wine bottles and tears.

As I listen to Nichole sing, and read Jenny’s words, and remember sitting up late one night talking to the Ryanhood guys in our kitchen when they were in town on tour with their new album Start Somewhere, I’m encouraged about the second part of the story. How part of the REMAKING that follows extreme carnage is ART: Stories told through paragraphs and lyrics and pictures. Puzzles with all the pieces fit together, revealing and reminding us of how God works: that if new hope has not arrived, it’s not the end. This can be hard to believe, and even harder to live. The Remaking happens despite us, not because of us. I guess it’s like yesterday’s post on forgiveness: we can block it, but we can’t make it happen on our timeline. All we can do is stand there and wait. I don’t understand it, but I’ve lived it. And so I spend my days writing about what that looks and feels like so that maybe, like Nichole & Jenny, Ryan & Cameron, my story might be another little flashlight helping others who are struggling to believe in the possibility of our impossible faith.

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, tells us something about overcoming, how it happens “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.” Jesus acts, we tell the story.

That I can do.