Friday, July 4, 2014

Take it off

It's Independence Day, friends! What are you carrying today that you need to just lay down? Guilt? Shame? Bitterness? Unforgiveness? Hatred? Disappointment? Take it off. It's weighing you down and stealing your joy. Sometimes we choose to carry things that kill our souls. Take them off. Put them down and walk away... even if you have to keep doing it over and over. Freedom is a choice. Choose it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dear Daddy

Dear daddy,

It’s the week of Father’s Day and I couldn’t be more ready to jump on an airplane to come visit you and say all these words to you face to face.  Instead, I had to jump on an airplane to go stand with my friend who had to bury her daddy just a few days ago.  One day her kids were playing Legos with him and the next he was suddenly gone. 

I know you know that feeling too because your own daddy leaned over and kissed your mom that unsuspecting day when he came to visit her in the nursing home, and as soon as his lips touched her head he went home to be with Jesus. 

People leave us suddenly – with no warning.  It could be you or I next – who knows?  What I do know is that I don’t want to leave anything unsaid.  I know I always tell you “I love you” when I see you or talk to you, and I mean those words with everything in me.  But I can’t help thinking that maybe, just maybe you don’t know all the heart, all the love, all the emotion that goes behind them.  And I don’t want either of us to ever leave this earth without really knowing that we said it all – or at least we tried. 

My friend Lindsey and I sat together under the moonlight in her backyard a few nights ago with her daddy’s Bible and a box full of letters that he had written her over the years.  We went through his Bible that had notes etched on every page with dates and places next to verses that meant something to him.  His prayers for himself and his family were written in the back of his Bible.  I know that for years to come that Bible will be a piece of him left for Lindsey to guide her and speak to her through the very pain and joys he himself went through.  As I looked at his handwriting all I could think of was yours – that super neat and legible left handed scrawl that is visible in every book you have ever read and every legal pad laying around your house.  I kept thinking about all the wisdom stored up in that mind and heart of yours, and am fully aware that only a fraction of it has ever made it to paper.  I know there will come a day where I will sit and run my fingers over your handwriting in your Bible and cherish it with all my heart.  But today, I simply cherish you.

I cherish the fact that from a very young age I knew you loved me.  The countless pictures of you making faces and being silly with me when I was a baby… I know I must have been a lot of hard work, but you’d never know it from how in love with me you look in those pictures.  I cherish the countless bike rides through Madeira, Ohio – down Thomas Drive to the convenience store for an ice cream cone; the thousands of times I felt the whiz of a softball in my ball glove that you tossed to me; all the sawing and staining and hammering you did to make us a tree house in the apple tree in the back yard – remember us sleeping out there on summer nights?   I cherish all the camping trips and state parks you took us to; the LONG drives down to Florida where you blew up a raft and spent hours with us kids out in the waves while we screamed and giggled and loved every second of it.  There was just never a time I remember you not being with me.  If you had free time after work, you were with your family.  I know I took your steady presence for granted – I just thought everyone’s daddy was like you.    

I cherish all those Sundays standing next to you in church listening to your voice singing hymns, all those car rides where you’d be driving and reach around to tickle me, every Sunday morning that you made toaster strudel and I thought it was the greatest thing ever.  I love that you are a learner – you always have been.  You suck down books like air and always have stories to tell from what you’ve read.  I love that you introduced me to Frederick Buechner and Brennan Manning and Henri Nouwen.  I love that you have this ability to single out the person in the room who just needs to be seen and heard and you have them sharing their story in no time flat. 

I cherish the fact that your full head of red hair is now a beautiful silver gray thanks to me and my siblings.   All the times I did stupid, ridiculous things that cost you sleep, tears and near heart attacks – you just loved me through them.  I’m sure I’ll never know all the prayers you prayed on my behalf, all the tears you shed for me, and all the times you thought your heart would explode from me finding my own way in this world. 

And then there’s the way you love my kids.  All the walks in the strollers when they were little, all the pushes on the swings, all the books that have been read, all the Legos that have been built, all the tractor rides that have been taken, all the Ernest movies that have been watched, all of the diapers that have been changed, all the cries that have been calmed, all the laughter that you have brought out of them.   As much as you adore them, they adore you.  Your love is strong and steady and sure. 

One of the biggest things I cherish about you is that you don’t presume to have all the answers.  You have your experiences that have shaped your beliefs as well as your doubts.  I find such comfort in knowing that you don’t have it all together - it gives me hope that I don’t have to.  You bring to the table all of who you are – your gifts, your joys, your failures, your sorrows, and you just are who you are.  I wouldn’t have you any other way. 

But the very best, most fantastic thing about you, daddy, is that you know Who you belong to, and that one thing has shaped not only your life, but all the lives you touch and will touch, including mine.  God has met you and made such a mark on your life that it in turn marks those around you in such beautiful ways.  The biggest gift you have ever given me is to point me to Jesus.  He has radically and beautifully changed my life.  I didn’t know it was possible to love Him like this - I didn’t know it was possible to be loved like this.  I am forever grateful to you for living and breathing the love of God.  Thank you seems trite, but I mean those two words with all my heart. 

Thank you for being a daddy I can be proud of and grateful for.  I love you for all the reasons I just wrote and then a heap more.  Happy Father’s Day, Papa.  You are loved more than I can say.  XOXO.

*And to anyone reading this who wonders if it even matters if you say the words that you feel - SAY THEM.  For the sake of all that is precious and important - just SAY THEM.   Even if it means you say them while tension is in the air or there are unresolved issues. SAY THEM.  Even if you're not sure you've forgiven that person or they haven't forgiven you.  Please.  Just SAY THEM.   

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Radically Loved

“Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”  - Brennan Manning

It’s that time of year again – my son’s “Gotcha Day”.  For those not familiar with the adoption world, that is the celebration of the day that we first met him – a birthday of sorts symbolizing when our lives began with each other.  I’ve written quite a few blogposts about what adopting Tariku was like over the past three years.  I really don't feel like each annual “Gotcha Day” demands a blog post, but every single year April 9th rolls around and I feel compelled to write one.  Maybe it’s because my son’s presence in our lives absolutely amazes me when I take time out from the daily grind to think about it. He spent the first four years of his life in a mud hut on the other side of the world sleeping next to a donkey and now he sleeps down the hall from me - it takes my breath away sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong.  This boy has an ability like no other to rub me the wrong way and exasperate me every day.  Our family life is not all roses and sunshine, trust me.  I lose my temper with him, I sigh and shake my head at him plenty of times and there are days I look at the challenges he has in front of him and I think “Um, God… you chose the wrong person for this journey… this is waaaaaay beyond me.”
But here’s the thing… God took a really broken, complicated situation in which my son wasn’t properly cared for, and he brought a whole lot of life and love and happiness from all the wreckage.  And don’t get me wrong… it wasn’t just my son’s life that was headed for destruction – it was mine too.  While he was a victim of circumstance, I was headed toward a life of selfishness and ignorance. But adoption changed so much of that for me, for which I am so incredibly grateful.

I was putting T to bed last night and I was telling him about the first time I learned his name and saw his face load ever so slowly on my computer screen.  I told him how I was holding the phone to my ear as I saw his picture for the first time, and with tears running down my face I said to my friend Lindsey “He’s mine.  This little boy was meant for our family.  I just know it. I can tell just by looking in his eyes.  He’s really, really mine.” I tried to explain to Tariku last night how we had waited for years for a referral and how amazing it was to finally see a face and know a name four years ago… how in that moment, I knew both our lives had changed forever.
I’m not sure why it is, but I have these moments of absolute raw tenderness with my son that I didn’t know were even possible.  As I was laying in bed beside him telling him about how overjoyed we are that he is our family forever and always, he reached over and wiped the tears that were trickling down my face and said “You’re crying because you are happy, right mom?  I know what that’s like.”  And I’m just so relieved that he does.  I’m glad that he knows what it means to cry because he’s happy, because there are so many children who don’t or can’t or won’t let themselves know that feeling. He said “I am so glad that you are my mommy now… because you are kind and you help people, but mostly because you love God.”  Well, okay…. there went an entire box of Kleenex.  Isn’t that all we can ever, ever hope for as parents?? That our kids see us as kind and helpful, but most importantly – lovers of God?  All those moments of my failure as a parent and a human being… every second I have snapped at him or had a bad attitude or been unsympathetic… he still sees my true self – the person covered in grace who just wants to love people and God no matter how much I fail at it.  He sees the me that God sees.  How amazing is that??

When Tariku came into our lives four Aprils ago, I wasn’t thinking about all the ways he might fail in life, how he might disappoint or hurt me, or the struggles that he would have.  I was just overtaken by the sight of his face.  I was in love with his four year old little arms that reached out to me and his precious little heart that was just so ready to be loved. There was nothing like it.  And it has taken me a lifetime –literally my entire life, to realize that that’s just how God looks at me - He's overtaken by the very sight of me - He's not worried about all the "what if's".  I’ll be darned if God doesn’t look down at me with my arms wide open and think “Look at her! Just look at her!  That one right there – she’s mine and I am SO stinking proud of her.  I see her for who she really is and she’s beautiful.  Nevermind the failures.  Nevermind the inconsistencies.  Nevermind the mess.  I see beauty and power and grace when I look at her.  I made her just right and I’m head over heels for her.”  That one thought right there is absolutely life changing if we let it be.

When I look at Tariku I see a pure gift. He was literally placed in my hands to love, comfort, guide and grow with.  I had ZERO idea how much he would teach me about how my Daddy looks at me.  Tariku just showed up that day on April 9th as he was… nothing fake about him – no pretense - he brought all of who he was to the table.  And we responded to his little outstretched arms instinctively with our own arms wide open. There’s nothing Tariku did to make us love him – we just loved him because he belonged to us. He was ours and that was enough.  God’s love for me and for you is just the same. It’s not contingent on anything we do – we belong to Him... every last one of us. God's great big arms are without fail, always open and coming towards us - always. There's just never a time when they're not. 

Most every night I put Tariku to bed I tell him all the special things I see in him – I name all the gifts that God has given him so that he won’t grow up to doubt his value or how loved he is.  I pray out loud over him that God would use his gifts of compassion and his heart for justice to change the world and help people catch glimpses of the God who is crazy for them.  And I wrap my arms around him and squeeze him tight and tell him that there’s nothing he can ever do to make me love him less or more. I tell him that he is so very loved just as he is – right now (at which point he normally farts and laughs so loud I have to cover my ears).  

It’s this same comfort level that I think God craves from us (okay, maybe he could do without the farting, but)… our ability to let down and just be who we are, without fear or shame or pretense must stir his heart the same way Tariku stirs mine – and then some.  God’s got his arms wrapped around us saying “Geez… I just freaking love you!!  Do you know that?  Do you REALLY KNOW that??”  Love like that has changed everything for Tariku, and Love like that has changed everything for me in recent years. My heart aches when I think about all the years I have spent striving, fighting and clawing my way to ensure I had that love when the whole entire time my Daddy was there saying “I’ve got you.  You belong to me.  Stop trying to earn my love – you HAVE it… you always have.  Just enjoy it."

Someone once said that God is never just doing one thing through a circumstance – He’s always working to accomplish many things through the one. And so it goes with our adoption of Tariku.  Not only was God providing T a home to be safe, cared for and loved in, but He was teaching me what His love really looked like.  God was showing me what my true home looked like in that same way.  I cannot tell you the amount of peace and satisfaction I have now knowing that I am God's beloved.... that there are no lengths He won't go to to show me that.  Watching my son grow in compassion has stirred and grown my own heart toward compassion.  My son might be my greatest teacher thus far in life, and I am just so grateful for his beautiful, miraculous presence in my life.  Thank you, God, for knowing just how much we needed each other and for bringing us together.  Life will always be richer because of it.

I’ll leave you with Tariku's “Gotcha Day” video from April of 2010. Fair warning though…get some tissues first - love like this makes you cry sometimes, but oh it's worth it!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Just Show Up

Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about what it means to suffer with others.  Most of it has been in the context of my experiences in Africa where I’ve seen excruciating poverty rob children of parents and parents the opportunity to provide for their children in even the most basic ways.  I have never personally suffered at the hands of poverty, but as human beings, we carry an innate ability to suffer with others as they suffer even if we aren’t experiencing the same circumstance they are.  I have shed many tears over the pain that people have had to endure, but I haven’t always wanted to engage in feeling that depth of hurt for others because it’s painful and it costs us.  But coming alongside and choosing to suffer with someone else in the midst of their anguish or difficulty is not only a place where beauty is born – it is a privilege of the highest degree. 

I was gently reminded of this last week as I spent time with a dear friend whose brother lost his battle with depression last month.  There is no describing that kind of pain, honestly.  As I drove through four states on my way to see her, I kept wondering how in the world to help her.  What do you even say in circumstances where there are just no easy answers?  How do you be a good friend when your heart can’t fathom what she must be feeling? I felt small and inadequate – mostly because I was exactly that. 

Yet, we go anyway.  We show up for each other even if it feels like we have nothing to offer.  We run to where the suffering is because that is what God has built us for – engagement with a broken, messy world where things don’t make any sense and we have more questions than answers on most days.  We go because we need each other.  We don’t necessarily need each other’s words – we need each other’s hearts and presence.  And I think more than anything, that’s what I wanted Lindsey to know – that I was there.  There are so many, many times where our words need to be limited to “I’m so sorry” and “I love you”, then we need to shut up and throw our arms around our people and just let them get it all out.  Because sometimes love looks like letting your friend sob and wail as you hold her on the bathroom floor while your heart feels like it will explode. 

I was talking last night with some friends about the mystery of compassion and how our hearts are made to connect with other people’s pain and emotion – in a way, it becomes our own when we choose to connect with it.  While sometimes this can feel burdensome simply because of the nature of pain, I am convinced that suffering with others and embracing them in the struggle is actually one of the most important gifts we can (and must) give each other.  The thing about pain and suffering is that while the ache never seems to fully go away, it heals.  People are permanently marked by whatever they have survived, but they heal.  And as we watch the healing process in others, we start to hope just a little bit more.  We in fact, might even heal a little bit ourselves. I know my own heart healed a little this past weekend as I spent time with my precious friend.

Lindsey has become an avid gardener over the past few years.  I walked with her through her garden as she showed me where certain plants were going to go in, and told me about how her raspberries grew last summer and her kid’s joy at popping them in their mouths.

She bought a greenhouse so she could get her seedlings started before planting season arrived. 

The more she talked about what she was going to grow, the more her face lit up.  I realized that this garden had quickly gone from a place to simply grow and gather a harvest to a place of hope for her.  Last year, a tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma where Lindsey lives.  What a stark reminder that there will always be something that threatens our hope.  Always.  Yet we build anyway.  We bend low and sink our hands into the dirt and we choose to hope.  The storms may come.  There may be wreckage, but we help each other rebuild. The soil may be frozen, but the cold ground thaws.

Flowers thought long gone make an appearance again.

Life grows out of brown dirt.

I glanced over at her heaping compost pile.  Amazing how the rot of our lives is the catalyst for growth and beauty. 

We spent hours on Friday moving two tons of mulch and dirt into their proper place.  We were making the ground ready and we were doing it together. 

As we worked side by side I was keenly aware that flinging that mulch and pouring that dirt was likely the best way I could have loved Lindsey that day.  No words necessary. We built a little bit of hope together in that garden on Friday and I learned that no matter what, you always show up.  Always.  Even when  you feel you have nothing to offer, you do.   

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Out of the Mouths of Babes

I came downstairs last night in tears after putting Tariku to bed.  As a parent, you get a few, precious moments with your children when they are feeling particularly tender and open about what's going on in their hearts.  I had snuggled down under the covers with him to say prayers and go through our night time routine. He asked me if I would tell him a story about myself when I was little.  Instead, I asked him if he wanted to hear a story about him when he was little.  We have very few of those, as we adopted Tariku from Ethiopia when he was 4 1/2.  In fact, the earliest story I know about him that wouldn't be painful for him to hear is of the day we first laid eyes on each other.  So I told him the story of a mommy and daddy who flew across the ocean to meet a precious little boy and how nervous they were.  I told him how the little boy jumped up and down when he saw us; how he came to us with open arms and kissed our faces.  I told him how he went over and got a chair for me when I was sitting on the ground and insisted I sit on it. I told him about how sweet it was that he picked flowers out of the ground and brought them to me that first day.  I told him how we were scared that maybe he wouldn't like us or want to come with us, and how overjoyed we were that he loved us right away.  

He was holding my hand and stroking it with his fingers the whole time I was telling him the story.  When I finished, he said "I'm so glad you are my mommy" in a tender, quiet voice that made my eyes fill up.  And then it all came flooding out of him.  

"Mommy, sometimes I cry for all the kids in Africa who don't have mommies or daddies.  Sometimes... about right now... I want to be a grown up so I can go to Africa and adopt as many kids as I can.  But it's hard to adopt kids, right, mom?  There are special papers you have to have and you have to go to court. Mommy, will you help me go to the court and sign all the papers to adopt the kids?  ...Mommy, what if all the kids get adopted? How will I be able to adopt then? Will there still be kids who need families?  I think there will. ...Maybe I can be President of Africa someday. Can I be President?  If I can be President of Africa then maybe I can make sure all the kids have medicine they need and clean water to drink.  Do you think I can do that, mommy?"

That's just a snapshot of the 25 minutes we spent talking together.  Much of it was too precious and intimate to put on a blog.  We both had tears running down our cheeks as we laid there with our arms wrapped around each other tightly, whispering the deepest longings of our hearts.  An 8 year old and a 39 year old... completely bound together by Love, glimpsing each other's desires, hurts and dreams...tears falling over the injustice in this world and the ache to do something about it.  

And I told him, not just with my mouth, but with all of the energy of my heart, "Yes, son. You can adopt kids.  You can help these kids. And you don't have to wait until you are an adult."  And immediately, I was smacked in the face with the reality of the challenges my son faces.  I had just come out of an IEP meeting with his teachers earlier in the week where we had talked about all the learning challenges he faces due to his severe starvation during the formative years of the brain as well as the head trauma he suffered. Our hope is that he can read some day... that his brain will start to function in such a way that the pieces will fall together for him to make the necessary connections.  
But, here is the reality - he IS making the truly necessary connections.  He is making the connections that matter.  His connection to compassion and to the very heartbeat of God is real and thriving and it WILL change the world.  It already has.  And THAT connection to compassion and love will take him places most of us adults would never dare go.  I look at my son and I see years of sadness, struggle, abuse and pain turned into fuel for love and justice and compassion.  I see how his precious heart has healed and is continuing to heal. I see in him a genuine and authentic desire to believe that he can, should, and will make a difference for suffering children in Africa.  And I see that no matter what challenges he might have on paper, God's plans for my son are real and big and bold, as they are for all of our children.    

It would serve us well to start looking past the challenges our children are faced with and truly SEE them for who they really are.  That child who lashes out at you, that child who pushes your every button, that child who retreats in fear and anxiety, that child who suffers with disabilities, that child who just can't make friends for some reason, that child who struggles with unhealthy responses, that child who doesn't seem to be attaching to you, that child who by every standard of this world seems less than the others around them... SEE them for who they really are.  See them for who they can become.  See in them the gifts that are there.  

As I was laying there next to T last night, dealing with an ocean of emotions, it struck me: This is the very thing God does for us.  He looks past my perceived hindrances.  He looks past my struggles with fear and doubt.  He sees past all my insufficiency.  And as my heart dares to whisper the question "Do you think I can?", his eyes light up and the corners of his mouth turn up and he leans in and whispers back - "Of course you can".  He looks at all our junk and baggage and says "So what?  Are you really going to let that stop you?".   He's made all of us for great things... He has put love and desire and passion in our hearts for the very things that move his own.  Tariku, at age 8 is paying attention to those things.  I truly believe he sees the potential of what he can do more than he sees any impossibility. What if we adults lived more like that?  What if we began to breathe that sort of attitude and life into our children?  

Somebody once said that we can only give what we have.  That leaves a very important question out there for me, as a parent.  How do I give the belief to my children that they have been given power to not only dream, but to act on those dreams if I don't believe it for myself?  I think I need to say this again because I can hear the virtual crickets from here. :)

How do we give the belief to our children that they have been given power to not only dream, but to act on those dreams if we don't believe it for ourselves?

At some point, our kids will begin to see the sham of us living shallow, fearful, unfulfilled lives while telling them they can do anything and that they have been set apart for a special purpose, and they will stop believing us.  

This beautiful, important encounter with my son last night caused me to stop and catch my breath.  At age 39 I've wanted to ask the same question of God that Tariku was asking of me... "Do you think I can?"  But I've been afraid to ask it because I have been certain of the answer and it's terrifying to me.  But it's time to stop being terrified and start being sure of the fact that "The One who calls us is faithful and HE WILL DO IT".  The outcome isn't on me, but the obedience to dream, to try, to dare, to risk is.  My 8 year old is ready and willing.  It's time his mama jumped on board.