The Death of a Son

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Jesus on the cross.

A few years ago I was asked to contemplate and create a piece of art through photography that spoke to that scene.  At first, I was overwhelmed. What could I possibly do with photography that could speak to this profound moment?

As I prayed, I looked down at my sleeping 8 month old baby whose fingers curled tightly around mine and thought, “What about Mary?”

The one who carried Jesus in her womb, the one who nursed Him at her breast, the one who did all the late night feedings after birthing Him into the world–she was there.  She was at the cross as He died. He was first the son of God, but He was also her son, and she held all the memories of raising Him while He hung dying on that cross.

Jesus was fully God and fully man, but I would pose that Mary was simply fully human and fully a mom.  And as a mom, I sought to ponder what it might have been like for her during those hours…

She knew it was coming, but nothing could have truly prepared her for the scene, the feelings, the smells, the sounds, the helplessness she felt.  Even if she was able to grasp the importance of the sacrifice completely, it had to war with her instincts as a mother, powerful instincts to protect and defend her child, her son.

As she watched Him die, did she flash back to that baby she held in the humble manager? To the fingers that once curled around her own in total dependance on her care, now being drained of their life while He hung on the cross?  Did she think back over the thousands of memories she held of watching Him grow into a man? Did she weep bitterly knowing that while this incredibly hard thing was God’s will, it felt like it was impossible for her to bear?

Mary, you didn’t run from the hard of any of those moments.  You stayed present. You stayed steadfast even as your knees dropped to the ground, and you wept and your heart broke into what seemed like possibly irreparable pieces. We know God had you even then, especially then, because through incredible pain and with extraordinary effort Jesus spoke from the cross about you:

“‘When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!’” John 19:26-27

Ordinary Mary. God used her to do an extraordinary thing. He chose her, He loved her, He had her…even and especially in the shadow of the cross.

He has you today too. From the cradle to the crosses in your life, He has you. He loves you. In the pain he promises to bring forth great purpose. Even when we feel crushed, He has a plan. He is never surprised, and He always gets the victory.  Like Mary, may we draw near to Jesus and not only find the resurrection power but also find the power that only comes at the foot of the cross.

 

A Question About Adoption

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“Would you do it again?” she asked, curious to know my answer as she watched the tears fall down my face.  I knew what she was really wanting to know–was all the pain worth it?

I think it is easy to romanticize adoption, to paint this fairytale story where there are heros and villains, dramatic turns and plot twists that eventually lead to happy endings for the people involved.  I used to see the ads play on TV tugging at the viewers emotions with pictures of beautiful children in need of homes, sweet smiling families embracing them and words like “changing lives” echoing in the background, alluding to sweet promises of the power you hold to change everything. I used to watch them and bite my tongue, physically forcing myself to stop the words I wanted to yell at the TV screen.  I understood the point of the ads, I understood the need, I just wished it was more accurate. Real life is not a fairy tale. But would people still say yes if they knew what was coming?  That thought makes my heart sink, we are a culture who idolizes the easy, the fun, the “guarantees” that something will feel good and runs from the hard out of abject fear…or maybe that is just me?

I can still hear my dear friends words, spoken in love all those years ago, while we were fighting to adopt our first three girls through foster care, she knew well what the road ahead could hold if we insisted on saying yes, she had already been dwelling years in those trenches, “You don’t HAVE TO adopt them you know?” I did know.

I lost track of the number of people who questioned why in our twenties we would agree to adopt two teens from foster care, or the number of social workers and therapists who would try and dissuade us as well.  At the time I was irritated with them all for trying to change our minds about doing this wonderful thing, I thought kids in foster care NEEDED families after all? Looking back, I can now see that many were genuinely just trying to help us understand what they in all likelihood already knew…the road would be anything but a fairytale and the odds of us saving anyone were statistically impossible. Could they smell our naviate? Sometimes in the heartache I can still hear their words, echoing, always echoing in rhythm to the pound of my heartbeat through the stillness of my tears.

In the midst of our adoption dreams we really didn’t leave room for the messy, the broken, or just how limited we would be in this story.  We also never really considered how it would be for our families who would also go along on the ride, not because they choose this but because we did.  But more then anything we didn’t want to consider that when we signed up to say yes, when we signed on the legal line choosing them forever that would in NO way guarantee they would ever choose US.  The beauty of us doing this in our 20’s was that we were gloriously hopeful for the future, our rose colored glasses shined up and polished to such a fine degree that the glare of their reflection could blind you.  Sure, there would be hard BUT it would all be great in the end, right?

That was before the effects on our girls surfaced, like well hidden emotional bruises, from all the days before us.  They would explode in their consequences and sobering reality into our lives like a set of well placed land mines–eventually leaving us sitting in a crater that looked a lot like the explosion of what once was our dreams of what life would look like. Us, hair scorched, wounds visible, smelling like fire ravaged us, sometimes in shock, we sat.

I have lost track of how many times I have questioned God in the mess, how often I have expressed my inability to navigate this road, certain I was not the right fit.  If God is collecting tears, on this issue alone, I feel certain its volume could easily fill a corner of the ocean. I still have more questions than I have answers, even more than a decade later.  Our girls, now parents themselves, are now both older than I was when we began our story, a fact that I often find incredible and sobering.

And so, through tears, I answered her, my sight clearer and words more certain now then the day we finalized our forevers, even knowing the hard–

“I have learned so much.  I have learned that God is not looking for the perfect but for the willing.  He is not asking us to change others but for us to trust Him while he changes us. He doesn’t expect us to do it alone but instead he promises he will give us himself. And most sweetly he promises that none of it, whether we see it or not, will ever be wasted. None of it.

So, I can say without hesitation that yes, I would do it all over again.  While we can control so very little in the story, we can keep choosing love, we can keep saying yes, we can keep pressing on because the two things I now know are certain are that God is changing me, and that our girls will always be worth it.”

 

A Bartender and a Carrot Cake

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I sat in the hotel lobby area sipping on my morning coffee, watching the beautiful, golden, early morning light pour in through the glass doors just a half dozen yards in front of me when I noticed him slowly shuffling into the lobby with his walker in the lead. The white hair left on his head trimmed short, once tall, he was now slightly hunched over, the crease from his oxygen line permanently imprinting his face during his sleep, he moved slowly forward. Carefully, he grabbed a complimentary newspaper from the front desk, and setting it on the seat of his walker, for what I assumed was easy transport, he began heading over to sit at the table in front of me.  Sitting carefully down, he opened the newspaper and began to read it.

Newspaper. “Huh, those still exist?” I thought to myself as I tried to focus on my plans for the day. It was my vacation and the possibilities were endless. It was all going to be about me for the first time in a very long time. So, God, what should I do today?

My eyes focused on the man in front of me again and the thought pressed in, why don’t you offer to serve him?

“Seriously?” I mouthed silently. Slowly, carefully, not unlike the older man in front of me, I got up and walked over to him.

“May I get you a cup of coffee?” I asked.

Looking up at me, a small smile on his face, he said, “Oh, I don’t drink coffee anymore. I gave it up when my wife got sick 6 years ago and couldn’t drink it anymore. Don’t get me wrong though, I like the taste of the stuff.”

His smile, big and warm, and inviting.

“Oh, wow. I wish I could give it up, but this mama needs caffeine. Can I do anything else for you?” I asked, trying to avoid thinking about how awkward I felt.

While looking down absently at the paper, smoothing it unconsciously with his hand, he softly replied, “Oh, you are sweet. No, I am good. My daughter will be here soon to have a cup of tea with me. You see, today is my birthday, I am 84… (deep breath and sigh) Yeah, my wife and I used to come here together you know, before she died in November.  We were married for 65 years. Now when I come some things bug me a bit.”

As his eyes grew misty, so did mine.

“65 years? That is incredible. I am so sorry to hear of her passing.” (I briefly pause, quickly searching for some words that might be ok in this moment…) ”That is wonderful that your daughter is coming! Are you going to celebrate?”

Still lost in thought as he looked passed me, my question seemed to awaken him again to the present as he responded, “Oh, yes. Have you met the bartender that is here in the evenings? Well, she is baking me a cake for my birthday today! Yes, do you like cake? She is making me my favorite–carrot cake with cream cheese frosting! You need to come back today at 5 o’clock and have a piece of cake with us!”

Seriously?

I promised I would while wondering if this bartender was really going to bake this guy a cake. What sort of bartender does that anyway?

That evening I was there at 5, waiting and watching, unable to shake this conversation from the forefront of my thoughts. The bartender appeared, a 60ish lady with a warm smile and short curly hair that was covered with a sparkly green St. Patty’s Day hat. As she poured my drink I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Are you REALLY giving a cake to one of the patrons today for his birthday?”

With a chuckle she looked at me and said, “Oh! You mean Sam. Yeah, great guy! He loves carrot cake with cream cheese icing so I baked one up for him last night. Today is his birthday!” My shoulders sagged as I realized she even knew his name and it hadn’t even crossed my mind to ask.

I had no words, so I sat and sipped on my beverage and waited. A few minutes later here came Sam rounding the corner into the lobby area and heading straight to the bar.  I didn’t hear their words, but I watched. After greeting him and pouring him a drink she left to head into the kitchen area. A few moments later she came out with a humble, but delicious looking carrot cake covered with a liberal amount of cream cheese frosting.  As she set it before him with a huge smile on her face I watched as his face lit up too.

I was watching a scene I knew Heaven was applauding.

Humbled, I walked over and asked if I could take a photo for them to remember the moment, and carefully he handed me his cell phone.

Later, the next day, as she hurriedly passed through the area trying to attend to her duties, I put out my hand to stop her. “Thank you for the lesson yesterday on what love looks like.”  And with a knowing smile she looked right into my eyes and remarked, “You are very welcome.”

It was the best sermon I have seen in a long time.

 

Paradise and the Camp Fire

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“Mom, you have to see the sky!”

I stood in my PJ’s watching the horrifying black cloud crawling through the skyline from our upstairs windows, fear and helplessness overcoming me.

I rushed downstairs and hopped onto my computer to see if I could learn of it’s cause, a fire had begun in Pulga and was rapidly heading up to Paradise. My heart sunk.

Here I sat in my living room less than 25 minutes away from so many who were in danger and there was absolutely nothing I could physically do to help them.

I started listening to the online scanner of the ongoing efforts made by the incredibly brave men and women who were present and I began to pray, fervently.

Tears poured down my face as I listened to the words pouring forth…

Children still at school.

A woman needing assistance who had gone into labor, a high risk pregnancy.

Traffic not moving as the fire raged.

Cars being abandoned.

People fleeing on foot.

Vehicles catching on fire.

Everyone working on just trying to get everyone out.

I felt ill. I thought of every single person trapped in those moments and I prayed again and again and again.

I started to check facebook and began seeing people posting of being trapped around the flames, uncertain if they would make it out. It wasn’t long before the pictures started surfacing of the charred and abandoned vehicles. I was undone and I could not wrap my mind around the reality of the horror.

November 8th, 2018. A date that most in this area will never forget, a date that will be seared into some souls like a branding mark. The day that Paradise, CA burned and tragedy struck.

So many have lost every earthly possession that they had. Too many lost their very lives.

As I write this I am watching as people are walking humbly by with food in their arms, given by a shelter a block from my home. The home we wondered if we would loose as the fire headed toward Chico, our home that still stands, and I am struck again by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. But we are not helpless despite the feelings that may pervade us.

My heart has broken for all of these precious people; my neighbors, my friends.

God can do a lot with a broken heart though.

In fact, I am amazed as I watch so many people and businesses work hard to help, pour, serve, and love in anyway that they are able.

This is the beauty in the ashes.

The stories pouring forth make me weep anew at how beautiful it is when people lay it all on the line for each other.  And so we keep praying, we keep showing up, we keep pressing in, we keep serving, we keep connecting, we keep talking and listening and holding our dear brothers and sisters as the next weeks and months unfold. We give, and we lay ourselves out. We CAN help. While no one person can do everything, together everyone can do something and that is profound.

This is love in the unspeakably hard places.

 

Time Hop

Rachelle age 15, Ariana age 14, Emily age 1

A photo can act like a time machine set on mute. In a instant it can send you through time, replaying different moments and scenes, sometimes even playing on your senses–but you can do nothing but watch.

Welcome to 2005, near the beginning of our parenthood story. A time of optimism and naivete, a time of hope and hard, and a time when I still didn’t realize I could never be a savior. Of course, at 25, that is NOT how I would have worded it–it would have sounded more like, “If we love enough, work hard enough, fight for enough THEN…the story will FOR SURE have a happy ending.”

Sometimes I have to remind myself that it is not yet the end…

That when hope lies deferred and my heart grows sick that God is still able…

That even though I have no answers to a long list of why’s it is all still worth it.

Sometimes I have to remind myself several times a day.

But woven through the hard is the beautiful–gleaming like Christmas tinsel among the darkened tattered places…

This cheap wally world studio shot is our first family photo. I remember trying to find matching clothes for two teens and a toddler, being frustrated but excited that I even had the opportunity at all.

I remember Ariana and Rachelle allowing me to curl and braid their hair for the very first time–humoring me in my desire to dress them up like dolls (see age 25).

I remember staring at them while the photo was shot, overcome with emotion, and in awe of how beautiful all three of them were. They were not yet officially ours at the time of this photo…that would be a long road…yet they were ours. They were already sealed in our hearts, forever.

I remember whispering to God, “please let me be their mom, let there be no more good-byes, not because I am deserving but because I know the love I have for them only you could create.”

And I remember the whisper of that moment: then you will become a fierce warrior…

and I have been learning how to fight for them ever since.

Love Wins

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I don’t remember the first person who told me about God.  I was invited to many churches and heard many things during the first 12 years of my life.  I didn’t doubt there was a God because I knew there was evil. For some, that is a stumbling block–the problem of evil–for me, it was proof.  If there was evil, but not ALL was evil then there MUST be the opposite and that opposite was God. He was just an idea until junior high; an idea that I wrestled with often.

My first memory of evil was when I was 4.  He was 15 years old and promised it would be “fun” but that I would get into big trouble if I told.  I would ride to school with that evil for years. There were so many moments of evil in that first decade of my life that I could never doubt its existence.  It crossed gender lines and age limits; it knew no bounds.

But God?  What about him?

If you had come to me and told me I was going to hell, I would have laughed and told you I was already there.  If you would have tried to explain to me that I was a sinner, I would have shaken my head and asked you to tell me something I didn’t already know.

When you live in the darkness you need not be reminded of its presence….you need to know that there is light.

Love.  Just as I was, right where I was, I needed love to wrap around me and promise to walk with me as it changed me.  And it DID change me…one bit at a time.

That is the Jesus I know–he meets you where you are, as you are, and calls you to himself.  People can represent him imperfectly, but they will never replace him. And so, my 7th grade year, several circled ‘round me -for a time- to represent him, his love.  Their love was beyond my understanding. Yet, I was SO hungry for it.

Love won me.

True love always wins, in the end–not the love offered by the world, that is temporary and conditional– but true love.  Love that gets down in the gutter where you live and raises you up, and then holds on, without end– THAT is the good news. That he loves us, and took it all upon himself to save us and he never, ever let’s go.

What are you known for?

The truth and love are not enemies, you don’t have to trade one for another, in my experience they go hand in hand.  After-all, wasn’t that what Jesus modeled?