February 6, 2016
Say the Word
“A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart
and will sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.”
My friend has come for a brief visit this crisp winter morning, although “visit” is a relative term and doesn’t accurately describe our interaction. It’s hard to have an uninterrupted conversation when there are little ones running around, each one needing something that can’t be postponed. While my friend sits alone at my kitchen table (in my preoccupation, I may have forgotten to offer a cup of coffee or a glass of water), I change a diaper, refill a sippy cup, start a g-tube feeding, catch the toddler just before he falls backwards off the couch, stop the older one from grabbing his favorite toy away from the baby (and then remind him again of why he needs to keep his toys in his room), clean up spilled Cheerios off the floor, and turn off the feeding pump when the alarm indicates that it is finished.
The entire time, my friend is sitting there, slightly amused, watching the non-stop chaos that defines the majority of my waking hours. I try to make light of the situation and say, half-jokingly, the phrase I say many times every day, as if I’m starring in my own video that might be posted online somewhere: #thisismylife.
To which my friend responds, with barely a hesitation: It’s the life you chose.
That is the end of the conversation right there. How can I possibly reply? It is the life I chose. When I agreed to care for these foster children, some who have since been adopted into our family, what else did I expect? A life of spa days and bonbons?
Even so, the comment stings. I feel like a turtle, safely protected inside my beautifully painted shell, fearful that anyone might see the weak, vulnerable, ugly reptile hiding inside. In a moment of courage, in hopes of making a connection, I hesitantly stick my head out to assess my surroundings. To test the waters. Nope. It’s not safe. The grace and compassion I had hoped to find is met, instead, with criticism and judgment. And so I retreat back into the safety of my shell. #fakesmile #everythingisfine I do not say one word.
I received the message loud and clear: #youchosethislife and #youhavenorighttocomplain and #maybeyoushouldquit.
But wait a minute. Why does that have to be the end of the conversation? Where is it written that I always have to put on my happy face and be the poster child for foster care? Why do I feel the need to pretend to be the foster parent with superhuman patience and unbelievable perseverance in the face of adversity? Why can’t I be honest about the realities and the difficulties of caring for traumatized and broken children? Just because I chose this life, doesn’t mean that I should be forced to walk it alone.
We are all part of the same body, the body of Christ with different abilities and roles and strengths. I don’t live my life – rare and incomprehensible as it may seem to others – in isolation. God has uniquely assigned me this part to play. The part where I open my doors wide and welcome children who have no other place to go. Where I include these hurting children as part of my family. And not just my immediate family, but my extended family and my family of believers as well. Whether I am succeeding or struggling, celebrating victory or admitting defeat, feeling strong or especially weak, we experience those things together.1 I need my family and friends to laugh with me when things are going miraculously well, and, when there is only heartbreak and darkness, to cry with me.2 I need the freedom to be honest about both.
I think of it this way: Would we say that to people in other walks of life? It’s the life you chose? Imagine saying that to a missionary in a far-off land: I’m sorry you are homesick and have gotten malaria and are having difficulty learning the native language. But we don’t want to hear about it. It’s the life you chose. Please don’t tell us about the times you shared the gospel and nobody listened. We only want to hear your success stories. It's really too bad that you serve selflessly 24/7 for years and years without a break. Maybe you should quit. Of course not. We would want them to tell the truth: the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly truth.
It’s the same with me as a foster parent. My home is my mission field, and every day I have the opportunity to share God’s love, not only with the children who are living in it, but also with their birth parents and relatives, social workers, therapists, medical professionals, service coordinators, and teachers. And like a full-time missionary, sometimes my faith is strong and my confidence is sure; and sometimes I lose sight of the purpose behind it all, and I just want to quit.
So when the difficulties and the chaos seem to overshadow the accomplishments, and when I am brave enough to tell you the truth about how I am feeling on those days, please show me compassion and grace.
At the first hint that I might be struggling, please ask, “How are you doing?” It’s easy to talk about the children or their parents or what happened at the last court hearing. It’s much more difficult to talk about my personal struggles and doubts. Please offer me the opportunity to be honest.
And if you happen to be sitting at my kitchen table and see first-hand the incessant needs of my little ones, please don’t hesitate to ask, “How can I help?” Sometimes I just need another set of arms to feed a baby or load a dishwasher or fold a load of laundry. If you come for a “visit,” we may have to re-heat our coffee that has grown cold, and we will most likely get interrupted a thousand times in one conversation. Just know that #thisismylife, and I welcome you to be a part of it.
I do try to protect the privacy of my children, but sometimes I just need to talk about the struggles and challenges of raising a child from hard places. Their wounds are invisible, but that doesn’t mean they are any less real than the visible scars. A sweet, innocent, loving little boy can become, at the slightest provocation, like a feral animal, kicking and screaming and destructive. A charming and incredibly social little girl can lie and steal and deceive behind closed doors. If ever I try to describe these behaviors that seem outrageous and exaggerated, it’s ok to say, I have never seen him/her act that way. But, I do believe you. I don't need your advice (actually, please don't give me your advice unless you have experience with wounded children). Just a listening friend full of grace and support and love. A safe place to be honest.
When I describe the heartache inherent in the life of a foster family, when I’m bawling my eyes out at the unfairness of it all, it’s ok to say, I don’t understand. Or I can’t imagine what that must be like. I mean, truly, if you haven’t lived it, how could you possibly? (Sorry, those of you who “foster” puppies. You don’t get to say you “totally understand” what it’s like when a child leaves, because one of your puppies has been “adopted.” Comparing a precious, eternal, wonderfully-created life of a child with that of a puppy is just offensive.) When I cry, just hug me and do not hesitate to cry with me.
At the very beginning of our foster care/adoption journey more than 20 years ago, my husband and I faced one of the most devastating losses that anyone can experience: a disrupted adoption. After two months of loving on our precious baby girl, her birthmother changed her mind and decided she wanted her daughter back. Nothing, nothing can ever compare to placing a child you love into the arms of a teenage girl, knowing that you will never see the baby again. You will never again be her mother.
In my darkest moment, when the grief was more than I could bear, my pastor and his wife knocked on my door, completely unannounced and uninvited. I cannot tell you what they said. I have absolutely no recollection of their words of encouragement or if they shared any Bible verses with me. What I do remember is that they came. They were present, offering their support and love and compassion. They cried with me and prayed with me and held me. And it was exactly what I needed. It gave me the strength to persevere another day.
Sometimes you just don’t know what to say. Sometimes you truly don’t understand the difficulties and the struggles and the discouragements and the doubts. That’s ok. Never hesitate to just say the word. And I do mean, say The Word.
When I am overwhelmed by fear and discouragement and feelings of inadequacy, speak Truth into my heart. Tell me to run with perseverance and not lose heart.3
When I have lost sight of my purpose, remind me to wait in hope.4 To fix my eyes on the One who is my reward if I do not give up.5
When I have forgotten to smile, help me rediscover the joy that is still there, the inexpressible joy nestled deep inside my heart.6
When I am exhausted and have reached the end of my strength, proclaim the promises of the One who never grows weary. The One who enables me, not only to limp along, but to soar.7
Text it, message it, tell it, write it, e-mail it, post it, whisper it, share it. Be the friend who knows the song in my heart, and please, please sing it back to me when I have forgotten the words!
Yes, #thisismylife, and yes, it is indeed the life I chose. But sometimes I need you to remind me again of why I chose it. Encourage me again and again to trust the One who called me to do this hard thing.
That’s all you have to do. Just say the Word.
1. But God has put the body together . . . if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. – 1 Corinthians 12:24-26
2. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. – Romans 12:15
3. Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith . . . so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3
4. We wait in hope for the Lord; He is our help and our shield. - Psalm 33:20
5. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. – Galatians 6:9
6. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. – 1 Peter 1:8
7. Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. – Isaiah 40:31