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Archive for May, 2014

The Cleansing

This may be teetering on the verge of imbecilic, but, control freak that I am, I have been so unwilling to open up my house to friends or small group or pretty much anyone because the carpet in my living room is so ridiculously unsightly. There are more stains than I can count from my old dog, a few spilled drinks, and general wear and tear from the undersides of kids’ tennis shoes. Lately when I’ve come home after work I noticed a pungent smell coming from my living room. You know it’s not a good sign when you can smell your own house. So, dirty carpet plus unpleasant smell equals closing off my house to outsiders. And although it drives me crazy to live like this and have my house feel dirty and unkempt, until today I was okay leaving it like that because no one sees it and no one knows, and no one has time to fix it. But I got a call today from the leader of my homegroup telling me that our service project at a foster kids group home fell through and she was wondering if there were projects around my house that needed completing so the group could come and do a service day with me. I loved the idea, and goodness knows my yard is in desperate need of some TLC, but the thought of this wonderful group of people stepping into my house, my mess, was just too much. I didn’t want their first sight of me in my natural habitat to be one of disarray and stench.

So I went to Lowes this afternoon and rented a carpet cleaner. I got the heavy-duty, made special for dog stains and odor, carpet shampoo, and oxy deep stain removal spray. I got home and moved all the furniture out of the living room: the tv, couches, and even, somehow, the piano. I shoved it all into my kitchen until all that was left in the living room was my fireplace, my built-in bookcases, and the carpet. The dingy, dirty, carpet.

I remember when I first bought my house, fixed it up, and had brand new carpet installed. I was so protective of the carpet; even when we were moving everything in I had my volunteer laborers remove their shoes each time they stepped foot indoors. I loved that carpet! Marveled at its cleanliness. Breathed in the fresh smell of softness. It was perfection. But over time, when I didn’t even realize what was happening, the newness and freshness wore off, real life took place in the living room, and the used-to-be-off-white carpet got dirty.

Tonight as I figured out how to run that laborious machine and walked it back and forth over and over again, wetting stains and sucking the dirtiness out of them, Annalise decided to have a melt down over who-knows-what. She took every basket of toys, every item in the playroom, and threw them, full force, against the walls, the bookshelves, the art table. She shattered toys, indented the drywall, and wreaked havoc on the whole room. She didn’t stop until the whole floor was literally covered six inches deep in toys. She’s not a small kid, so when this happens, the best I can do is get away and wait it out. I can’t stop her. I can’t even stay in the same room. I have to walk away and wait. It broke my heart tonight because this room is such a special room to me. I built it for foster kids. I created it for her. And she destroyed it.

But when I heard her tantrum subside, I prayed for an extra measure of grace, and walked into the mess. I didn’t say anything. I just walked over to where she sat, trying to pick up the mess she made, and I pulled her tightly into a bear hug. She started sobbing. I held her more tightly and rocked her back and forth as she collapsed into my arms. When she had stopped crying, without a mention of the tantrum, I helped her pick up the toys littered around the room. We cleaned in silence for a while and then as she regained her dignity, we started to talk about what happened. She apologized and thanked me for helping clean up her mess. She sheepishly asked if I was going to send her away and when I told her that my love isn’t used up on one melt-down, her face soared into a smile and she leaped to hug me. I spent time reassuring her of my love. We talked a lot about grace tonight and Jesus and how unconditional His love is.

As we finished picking up the toys in the playroom and tossing out those that were irreparable, I returned to my carpet cleaning job. I watched the clear water turn chocolaty brown as the machine sucked the dirt from the ground. It suddenly hit me that this is what Jesus is capable of. I watched again and again as the suds formed, the machine hovered, and dark brown water appeared in the holding chamber.

Over the past nine years Annalise’s life went from new and clean and perfect to messy and dirty and shameful. Because of what happened to her, she now joins in the mess, creates chaos, and destroys other things that are beautiful. Her life is soiled by her past and by the choices of her family.

But that’s not the end of the story! There is grace and forgiveness and a deep, life changing cleansing that is possible through Jesus. He can pull all the mess out of her life: the dirtiness and guilt and muck that has been her life. There are some stains that will never go away (goodness knows that red soda stain on my carpet is there to stay!), things she will have to look at and deal with for the rest of her life, but they get less noticeable with time. And as the cleansing work of Jesus takes place, more and more of life’s dirt and grime disappear. He is able to make ALL things clean.

One of the privileges I have as a foster parent is that I get to watch that dirt be removed. I get to participate in the cleansing. I get to see the stains lessen. When Annalise first came to me she didn’t smile, didn’t laugh, showed no affection at all. Over the past two months she has come alive; she is helpful, compassionate, and incredibly cuddly. Last night when I got home from youth group she was still awake in bed. I went to say good night and she just beamed with joy as I walked in the door. She clung to me, hugged me, and giggled a happy laugh. Dirt removed. Stain erased. A cleansing beginning. I get to see it. I get to help. And I get to live over and over again with a picture of grace, right here, in my living room.

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All Things

Every night at bedtime Annalise and I lay in her bed and spend some time reading the Bible and a devotional. It’s become routine in my home to do this with my kids, but God really laid on my heart a couple weeks ago to not just read it out of routine but to actually spend time discussing the content of what we are reading and leave time for Jesus to actually stir in Annalise’s heart. Reading a Bible verse and three paragraphs from Jesus Calling for Kids, saying a quick prayer for sweet dreams, then shutting off the lights and closing the door does not bring about change. I was realizing there was no fruit from our devotion times and found myself leading out of some sort of superstition that if we didn’t do this then Annalise would have bad dreams or Satan would some how come and attack her mind. If we spend time, even out of obligation and habit, reading the Bible and praying then God owed us some sort of hedge of protection, right?

But it wasn’t enough. Life wasn’t changing; at least not in a positive way. I always say I get a one month “honeymoon” with my foster kids and then all hell breaks loose in their behaviors. Annalise has been no exception. This week has been rotten and culminated today with her getting suspended for the rest of the week for shredding a library book with her bare hands and attacking her principal (also with her bare hands). Today was bookmarked with news that I won’t be getting my car back (or receiving any money for it) and that I was overdue on my utilities bill so my water was disconnected over lunch. Life change was not happening this week and I was feeling so overwhelmed. Where’s the good in today?

But when we snuggled into bed tonight after a really good time at Home Group, God poured over us like He has over and over again. I don’t know why He is so gracious to me; I certainly don’t deserve it! But as we laid there looking up verses in the Bible Annalise had asked for from church two weeks ago, flipping through pages, passing areas she’s already underlined and highlighted, God spoke to me.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28

I looked at her, thinking about how much of her life has been filled with pain and disappointment and brokenness, and I told her that this verse may be one of the hardest to believe. How could God work all the bad things in our life for good? Then with simple, childlike faith, she turned to me and said,

“Miss Shelly, He already has.”

When I asked her to explain what she meant she talked about how bad today went (and it was bad!) but how incredibly good it was by the end. “See, Miss Shelly. God turned a bad day into good. Of course He can work all things the same way.”

I know we have a long road ahead of us. Today was a baby step on the road of faith and growth and freedom. But tonight when I lay my head on my pillow I can sleep peacefully, not because I prayed a five second prayer for serenity, but because I believe, with all my heart, God works ALL things together for our good.

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I’ve been meaning to write for days (or has it been weeks already?) about how delightfully smooth my time with Annalise has been going. She has adjusted well and has had very little negative behaviors. Her “tantrums” include the silent treatment or laying all over the kitchen chairs or couch, sighing extravagant sighs to try get attention. Normally if I ignore her for a few minutes, she pops back and we’re back to playing Nerts or Uno. I probably should’ve written about those things because then today wouldn’t have felt like such a downer. But I guess God knew, perhaps, I needed a little more time to mull over the good times, to cherish in my heart those quiet days, and to contemplate in my own mind what He’s been teaching me before I put my fingers to the keys.

God brought me to Matthew 10:29-31 yesterday and it has been so incredibly timely.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Annalise has a mop of thick, dark, beautiful ringlets. Most days we just tie it back in a pony tail and try to mat down the frizzes with a spritz of hairspray. I have braided it a few times, twisted it into a bun, or added a headband for extra pizzazz. But yesterday morning she wanted it flat ironed. Everything in me wanted to make up some excuse about not having enough time before church, but her deep brown eyes, and a stir from Jesus, reminded me that it is not about me. And in reality, it wasn’t even about her frizzy hair. It was about bonding and spending time together and letting her know that I care enough about her to sit still with a magic hair wand and straighten those darn curls.

So I sat on the edge of my bed and she got comfortable in a swivel chair and I laboriously divided her hair and steamed those curls into a straight line. Comb, hold, steam, pull, straighten, brush, repeat. Over and over again for an hour. She passed the time by reading out loud to me from her new library books. I helped her on the hard words and before I knew it Annalise’s hair was four inches longer in perfectly straight form. I trimmed the edges, she smiled in the mirror, and bounced away to her room to get dressed for church. I looked at her as she bound away, her dark hair dangling down her back, and I thought to myself,

“He knows every hair on that head.”

It was a fleeting thought, there and gone as quickly as she was. I didn’t think anything of it again until we arrived home from church and I stood trying to unlock the door to the house. Annalise gasped and I looked over to my left where she was pointing. Laying on the ground atop a pile of brown leaves was a tiny little bird. He still had some of his baby down sticking to his chest and his eyes were barely slits, open cautiously on his little head. His legs sprawled out and his beak opened and closed as if he were trying to cry out but not so much as a tweet left his throat. Compassion filled my heart as I scooped up the little guy and rushed him into the house to make him well. I wrapped him in a blanket and tried to hold him still with one hand while I looked on Google for answers to this little bird’s medical needs. I had Annalise grab a lamp and I grabbed an eye dropper and tried to feed him a drop of water. He jerked and flopped and moved around in obvious pain. I tried to cuddle him up, make him feel safe. A few more tired moves and then he stilled. His beady eyes stared at me, his beak open in a silent expression of pain. And he didn’t move again. He just lay there, in my hand, lifeless. I chocked back a few tears and told myself it was silly to get emotionally involved in the lifesaving tales of a sparrow, but I couldn’t help it. Everything to me is symbolic and I felt, somehow, like I had let this little bird down.

And then the verse came to me again.

“Not a single sparrow will fall to the ground without your Father’s care.”

Hair and sparrows. Cares and sorrows. God holds it all. So when today hit and sweet girl was a whirlwind of attitude, disrespect, and defiance, I remembered yesterday. I do not have to worry about how to respond or how I’m going to handle each situation that arises. I don’t have to worry about holding all these cares in my hand. Because Jesus sees. We are worth more to Him than any sparrow.

I tried to spend time tonight (when my tongue wasn’t caught between my teeth) listening to Annalise share her frustrations and feelings and acknowledging them with my words and body language that I really do understand and care. She frustrated the life out of me, but I kept reminding myself that this actually has nothing to do with me at all. She has a past of hurt. Trauma. And a life time of bad influences. Tonight she just needed to know that someone was in her corner with her, willing to stand and fight beside her, willing to hear her out. I didn’t remove the consequences, but I also figured out tonight no amount of explaining will help. God knows the hairs on her head. He knows when we fall. And my job, tonight and always, is to relinquish control and trust and place them in the hands of the one who told us not to worry. He’s got this. He catches us. He cares.

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I love sunny Saturdays! The warmth always envelopes me in a way that makes me come alive. Every year, like clockwork, the grass turns green, the flowers bloom, and I start to live again. The mountains beckon me to come play every time the sun is shinning and there is a slight coolness to the breeze. I must go. I must get in my car and drive. I must devour the scenery and fill my hibernated senses with life again. So today I went.

Annalise and I had been invited by some friends to explore a state park none of us had heard about. We drove almost an hour southwest and ended out in a beautiful hideaway that obviously few people had discovered. There were paths around a river, rocks to climb and lay on, sand to sink your toes into. We had a picnic lunch, swatting gnats while stuffing our faces with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We explored the river, practiced skipping stones, and allowed the freshness of the day to sweep over us. The whole afternoon was perfect.

There were seven kids with us, my friend and I. We kept a watchful eye over the little ones but allowed them the freedom we were thankful our parents allotted us when we were young. We weren’t worried about how wet their shorts were getting or what they might step on with their bare feet. We just sat and enjoyed their laughter and the moments that kids get to truly be kids. I sat on a rocky bank while the little kids played around the edge of the river, near a waterfall. My friend went to tie up her dogs to an obliging tree on the other side of the rock. My shoes were off and I just sat watching, allowing the sun to warm my wintered legs and feet. All was calm.

How quickly things can change in the blink of an eye. The four littlest kids were playing on the water’s edge and one of them started to get pulled out from the bank toward the waterfall, which was tugging with an intense undercurrent. There was laughter and the kids thought nothing of the situation. It was a game. His little blond head was above the water. He was smiling. He was still able to swim back toward the shore. But all of a sudden he went a foot too far and he couldn’t out-swim the current. I saw panic flood his face at the realization that he was going to get pulled under. At the same time I noticed him, the three other little kids saw this, and formed a group chain, in the water, to try to pull him out. One after the other, they slipped on the slimy rocks and, chained together, all three of them joined their friend in the current.

Without thinking, I ran from my spot on the rock and jumped into the frigged mountain creek. Foamy white water splashed around me. I heard the screams of children grabbing onto each other. Four heads bobbed up and down near the waterfall, swirling and getting pulled further out. I grabbed the two kids nearest me and attempted to swim them out of the current. I kept dropping them, and in the panic, Annalise clawed at my shirt, my neck, and tried to get her head above the water. She kept pushing me down, taking me with her. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t get air. Panic engulfed my normally calm mind. Where are all the kids? Are we all going to drown? I grabbed Annalise and started yelling for help. At the last moment, when I wasn’t sure we were going to make it, my foot hit a rock and I was able to get my head above the water. I grabbed kid after kid floating past me and shoved them toward the shore, away from the current. I held tight to Annalise and saw out of the corner of my eye, my friend running toward us. She helped me grab the kids and pull them safely to shore. We were all a little shell-shocked, but we were okay. The kids were safe. All four kids were safe. And I was still alive.

As we sat on the rock and comforted crying children, my friend looked at me and said, “You know, it was all going to be okay. I’m a trained lifeguard. Not for a moment did I ever doubt that you were all going to be okay. I was on my way to save you.”

I drove home this afternoon, soaking wet, but thankful, and started thinking about the events of the day. Then it hit me. That experience represents not only what Jesus did for me, but what He calls me to every day as a foster mother. There are kids out there that are drowning in families filled with abuse and neglect and pain. Kids that are panicking because they don’t know if anyone will come rescue them. God has called me to notice them. To hear their cries, and to get involved. Being a foster mom is risky; it’s uncomfortable and at times rather scary. Sometimes I barely feel like I can breath. The kids cling to me and claw at me and often times I get pulled down into their pain. Sometimes I’m not even sure we’re going to make it.

But always…ALWAYS…without fail, at just the right time, God leads me to the Rock. He helps me find my footing in the chaos, and allows me the strength to help the kids make it out alive. I was reminded, tenderly, this afternoon, that I am never alone in this rescue mission. Always with me is my lifeguard, the Holy Spirit. He is there and even when I feel like I’m drowning and wish for the hundredth time that God had called someone else to jump in the mess, I hear Him say, “You know, it is all going to be okay. I’m a trained Life-Guard. Not for a moment did I ever doubt that you were all going to be okay. I was on my way to save you.”

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