When we began fostering, I thought that every child that entered our home would stay forever. We got into this to expand our family, and we would never say NO to a child. What kind of monsters wouldn’t love any child that was given to them?
Then that first placement. I knew immediately these children weren’t ours, should never be ours, and that it wasn’t a healthy long-term idea for our family. It took a caseworker to flat out call me on all my feelings and say, “you don’t have to adopt every child that comes into your home”. Well, duh, but I didn’t know that at the time. That was the most freeing statement anyone had ever given me, and it was what turned our entire decade of fostering around. I can confidently say that I would not have continued fostering except for the advice — to be honest, it was more of a rebuke — by that foster care worker.
Fast forward eight years, and we had five kids. We just bought a new property, in part because we wanted more space in which to welcome more children. We purchased a 150 year old house at auction, we still owned our old home, and as we had to convert the room with the washer and dryer in it to a second bathroom, this meant we had no laundry facilities at our new home for months. The old house served as a makeshift laundromat, only worse, because we could only do one load at a time. It was a time of life I’d just as soon not repeat, and this was the exact time that we got another call from our agency for two little kids, two and four. We both felt, with no hesitations, that this was right for our family at the time. This was exactly why we expanded our home, made more space in our lives.
It didn’t end in any way that we expected.
These two kids came straight from one of the sketchiest apartment complexes in our nearby city. They were the dirtiest children we had ever brought into our home, including the child whose hair-combing yielded more than 100 live lice. They came with other infectious bugs too and a couple of skin rashes to boot. I didn’t realize while we were cleaning them up that first day that the dirt on their bodies was no match for the depths of mud that had taken root in their poor little hearts. They came with Trauma. Capital T.
We brought them home. We gave them beds and sat with them at night for hours until they fell asleep. We sang them Jesus songs and prayed with them and did all that we could to negate trauma and make them feel loved. We did all of the things we had learned to do over our eight years of fostering and training, and we had gotten pretty good at learning how to make new kids feel welcome and safe.
Then our family disintegrated. Every single child, even the older ones. Everyone was angry and sad and hurting. We underestimated the effect that severe domestic violence and abuse has on small children, and to be honest, I’ve never been more taken aback by the behaviors of such a young child. We battled manipulation, lying, false accusations, FCS inquiries and investigations into our home, forensic interviews, caseworker interviews, and more due to both the children and their mother who very clearly thought she could game the system into allowing her children back with her before she was ready.
We eventually had to decide to remove these two kids from our home. We had never disrupted a placement, and it was the one of the hardest decisions we have ever had to make. We cried and agonized and drove ourselves to actual illness, but once decided, the agency was more than supportive. They found a new foster family. We did a transitional visit. I prepared. I wrote down schedules. Preferences. Favorite foods, favorite songs. I was in the throes of guilt over abandoning these children.
The day they left, I had packed all their belongings in totes and bags. They were lined up next to the front door, waiting for the case worker to come and take them to their new home. The little boy asked us to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ one last time “as a family”, and I truly thought I might break wide open on my front porch. I said goodbye and wondered if I would ever breathe again.
And yet that night, our five children sat at our dining room table unprompted and played a game together. They hadn’t done that for months. I watched them laugh and interact for hours. There was sense that a true oppression had been lifted from our home. I was simultaneously joyful and absolutely overcome with guilt. Why? Were we wrong to take those children? What irreversible damage had we done to our children? What irreversible damage had we done to THOSE children? Did we hear right? Was it really obedience at all if this was the outcome? It felt very much like failure on a lot of levels.
I’ve made peace with it even though I still have questions, because here’s what I know: We showed up for those kids. We loved them. We cared for them. We gave our all for them. But when it became clear things were bad, we showed up for our own kids. We cared for them. We gave our all for them, even when came at the cost of other children involved. I still think saying yes at the beginning was the right thing. I still think saying no at the end was the right thing.
My mama told me years ago that sometimes obedience is as simple as just doing the thing that’s in front of you. Just because something ends differently than what you anticipated does not mean it’s a failure. It doesn’t mean you’ve done the wrong thing. You’re not stuck. Just make the next right choice.
That’s the down-to-earth example we have in the Christmas story. Mary? Joseph? They had choices that looked to observers like the absolute wrong thing. A baby before marriage? Apparent cheating on your intended? Taking a cheater as a wife? Accepting a child who isn’t yours? Those things – still hard today, but definitely not cool back then. Yet they said yes anyway. Yes to consequences they knew – scandal, judgment, difficulties, and family rejection. Yes to consequences they didn’t know – their child would one day face His own scandal and judgment, and pay with His life.
This is where everything we’ve thought about, read about, discussed over these past few weeks comes to fruition. What’s the next step? Where are you supposed to say yes in spiate of what the consequences may be? Where are you supposed to say no? What does it look like for you to be obedient to the call to love?
Do the next right thing. In love.
(all due credit to Emily P. Freeman, Frozen 2, and others for the popularity of this phrase in our current moment)
Every week, I'll offer some reflections for your Advent season. Use some of the readings and suggestions, all of them, none of them - this is an invitation to go a little deeper than what the bright and busy retail season typically calls us to.
In the bleak midwinter by Christina Rosetti
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
And Mary said: My soul praises the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because he has looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and his name is holy. His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him. He has done a mighty deed with his arm; he has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he spoke to our ancestors.
Jesus, you came down to earth and moved right into our neighborhood; you became one of us. You did not come so we could pretend to be super-spiritual or super human but so your light and love could shine in and through us. Light of the World, shine in the darkest places of our hearts, shine where fear and confusion have left us paralyzed and unable to move forward, shine when we are face-to-face with the question of obedience. Jesus, this Advent and Christmas may we offer to you our simple yes, and may that yes ignite a change in us and in those around us. Give us the grace to shine like stars in the sky so that we will carry your light and love into the world. In your powerful name, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Rachel Billups from Down to Earth)
SHOW UP FOR YOURSELF Each week, I’ll share a spiritual rhythm or habit that helps me. Some of them might feel uncomfortable to try. I encourage you to try it anyway - there’s no growth without stretching. If this stretches you too far, however, feel free to pass it by.
Life Inventory It’s continually amazing to me how few people really sit down and reflect on their life ever, much less regularly. If you’ve never done so, I think you will be shocked at what it reveals to you. If you want to do the next right thing, you have to have some basis of deciding what that is, and if you do not know what your current life looks like and what the components are, it is infinitely harder. I find the turn of the year is a perfect time for inventory. I rarely make goals or resolutions right away, but I do spend a lot of time in inventory. I typically use a wheel of life type assessment which is modified here.
Set some aside this week to evaluate these six areas of life.
1) First, what’s working? What went well? How do you feel about them on a scale of 1 to 10?
2) Secondly, what’s not working in these areas? Where did you miss the mark? What went poorly? Who do you want to become?
· Spiritual – I’m going to guess that even if you do not share my faith, you have sort of interest in your soul if you’re reading these emails. What does this look like for you?
· Physical – Reminders: your body deserves health. Your body deserves to be treated well by you. Diets, exercise plans, “strong is the new skinny”, losing weight, focusing on appearance – those things are NOT the same as health and treating your body with respect and dignity. This is not just a ‘lose the weight’ section. Soapbox ended.
· Relational – This can be anything that you feel needs attention and work. Spouse, children, roommate, extended family, co-workers: we all have relational interactions. Pick what works for you this year.
· Professional – Yes, I know professional indicates payment for work. But this is your work section, whether or not you get paid for said jobs. Maybe your work is at home for this season, maybe it’s volunteer, maybe you do get paid, maybe this is where you put thoughts and ideas that aren’t your 9-to-5 job, but are work-related anyway.
· Financial – Like it or not, money is a huge part of our lives. How to get it, how to spend it, what our philosophies are behind it.
· Personal – Here is where I usually place bucket-list type goals or things that I can’t fit into any other categories. For example, last year, I noticed that how much I loved live music events. I attended barely any in 2018 – it wasn’t working for me. So when I noticed that in this section during my year-end review, I made a goal to attend more in 2019. This is just an example of noticing something that wasn’t working for you, and putting in a simple solution to make your life better.
As you complete the inventory, notice the themes that rise up. Notice where there’s space in your life for some yes-es. Notice where there’s no space – maybe that’s where a no belongs. The best and easiest way to know what the next right thing is is to prepare for that decision. That’s what this practice is: preparation. If you know what’s working in your life, what you want to change, what is coming up, and more, then you will have a much stronger basis for knowing where your next step of obedience falls.
(*If you’re interested in further work in this spiritual practice, later this week I will have a digital download available on my website. You are also, if local, welcome to join me for a workshop to work on some of this together.)
SHOW UP FOR THOSE NEARBY Here is where the challenge will likely hit home every week. An invitation to show up for others in the every day. And if you do? Please share! I’d love to hear how you make this invitation your own.
This week is the most vague of the challenges. I can’t tell you what obedience looks like in your life because it looks different for everyone. Your invitation this week is to show up fully in your ordinary lives and look for your own challenge. Where can you say yes to something this week for someone around you? Where do you need to say no to other things to make space for those yes-es? How are YOU going to take this example of a down-to-earth God and live like him in your everyday lives?
SHOW UP FOR THOSE FAR AWAY Here, each week, I’ll give you a non-profit recommendation to research and consider giving to. We can’t usually show up in person for people around the world, but one thing we can do is support the people who are.
International Justice Mission works all around the world to free people trapped in slavery and to protect people in poverty from brutal violence such as land theft, sex trafficking, and police abuse of power. The New Activist podcast, presented by IJM, recently shared a five-part story about a girl named Esther who was rescued from slavery in Ghana. It puts a face onto the work that this organization is working tirelessly to achieve. I recommend you take some time over the holidays to take a listen.
As a personal note, every organization I’ve featured is one that I have personally researched and given money to, either regularly or as a one-time gift. I take my organizational giving seriously, and I would not recommend an NPO that I had not vetted to the best of my ability, that doesn’t have open books, that doesn’t participate in accountability practices. I believe it’s important to give your dollars to where it will do the most benefit, where you have passion, and where the organization conducts itself with integrity. I encourage all of you to do your research and make your money is truly making a difference.
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