Friday, September 25, 2015

An Unexpected Friend

I sat in a Writer’s Conference listening to a local magazine owner speak about their submission policy and the ins and outs of the magazine business. I was also concentrating on drumming up the courage to approach her after the session.

Inside my head, I was ordering the words I’d say to her.

As soon as she wrapped up her talk, I rose from my seat– the first to introduce myself. As I began to share part of our adoption story of one child, a raven-haired beauty with ringlets of hair falling past her shoulders, drew near and mentioned she had adopted five children.
Immediately, the magazine owner’s attention shifted to the other mother, who also mentioned her career as an attorney. My degree was in pre-law. Law school was my lifelong dream, which never came to fruition.

To add salt to the wound, the other mom had flawless skin and appeared to be in her early thirties — I was certain she moonlighted as a runway model when she wasn’t raising children or spending hours in the courtroom. She seemed so perfect with her radiant skin, career, and angel-sleeved, fuzzy white sweater. . . READ MORE HERE

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Liberty - part one

The roads of the small town would’ve been saturated with plump pumpkins, hay bales, and corn husk figures on that day in late October 2010– intersections and front yards plastered with signs advertising Fall Festivals for chili-cook offs, costume contests, and children’s inflatables, as the crisp air wafted cotton candy and caramel apples.

The woman was likely surrounded by her two young sons, their hearts bursting with excitement, as they awaited the birth of their infant sister. She probably labored in the conventional blue-dotted gown, her bottle-blonde hair perhaps pulled back loosely into a ponytail.

Life is ironic. No coincidences or accidents. All of it a grace– beautifully and redemptively planned. 

And so it was . . . that I inhaled my first breath, let out my first cry, in the same small Calhoun County hospital 37-years before my youngest daughter would be born. The 1973 landscape of my birth in the small town would’ve looked much differently than the October evening in 2010, when a woman I didn’t know, gave birth to my little fuzzyheaded daughter.

It’s ironic that I traveled the same roads and attended family gatherings just a few blocks from where her birth mama graduated high school.

Could we have passed each other on the two-lane roads as children? Or played together at the park as pig-tailed girls?  

Her birth mama and I are nearly the same age.

Yet, our lives took such different twists to end up here– her giving birth to a child who would later bear my last name, become mine forever.

Kevin and I weren’t at the hospital on the blessed day of our little bitty daughter's birth. We have no pictures and no baby album marking her first year milestones of growth and development.

We have no hospital band from her tiny wrist, no photos of that day, or of the sixteen months afterwards. 

I’m not sure if photos were even taken of her first year.

I do know . . . joy and wonder filled the room as the squalling nine pound, twelve ounce little one was handed to outstretched arms. The baby girl was and is dearly loved by her birth mama and brothers.

However, I wonder . . . if the room was also heavy with a melancholy ache, as she swaddled and doted over the fatherless babe tightly wrapped in a flannel blanket? Her fifth child.

And, I wonder . . . were she and the baby celebrated? Was there a pink wreath on the over-sized hospital door? Were there visitors, flowers, and gifts? Was there cheering when that baby girl with coils of jet-black hair sat up for the first time, took her first steps, or ate her first solid food?

Three names were in her heart for her child, and she decided upon them all, announcing her little one as Liberty Isabella Ecko

Merriam Webster defines Liberty as the quality or state of being free; the power to do as one pleases. 

She chose Ecko to represent an echo, a reverberation, of the first name. Because, most of all, she believed that freedom was a beautiful name repeated. 

In my brief conversations with the woman over a year ago, she never mentioned why she chose Isabella. 

So now, I’m left to wonder. 

The name is dear to my heart, as the Hebrew meaning of Isabella is devoted to God

The little bitty baby with the big long name also held a double meaning, for when the letters were placed together like wooden game tiles, her initials spelled lie

As she doted over the swaddled babe on the day she was born, she couldn’t have possibly known the significance of her child’s given name, nor that she’d soon lose custody of the spiral-haired wee one.

She would’ve had no immediate understanding that her choices, her brokenness, her life’s path would implode and ultimately cost her everything. For the freedoms she chose to live out would lead to her little sons left alone to care for their baby sister. 

The darkness and lies, which haunted her, would eventually sweep her away, costing her the freedom to be a mother. In the end, she’d forever lose her freedom to parent. The liberty to raise her baby girl would be whisked away by a judge’s decision. 

The heaviness of her brokenness would be weighed upon a scale, her life placed under a microscope in a courtroom. Ultimately, and rightly so, the safety of her children the intense focus. 

Despite her large birth weight, the baby would grow into a little bitty of a girl, her spiraled raven hair skimming her waistline as a toddler. 

For the little bitty girl with jet-black curls would become a member of our family . . . forever

We’ve since changed her name, removing Isabella. 

A new start. Freedom

Because truth rules over lies, and she’s a gift, reflecting beauty and truth . . . her name a token of her past and hope for her future.

{photo credit}

Monday, June 15, 2015

YO, VIP Let's Kick It!

 So, Vanilla Ice lyrics from "Ice Ice Baby" rattled in my head all day yesterday.

"Hey, we're VIP!" the chorus of six kids resounds across the backdrop of the expansive stadium field as we loop red bracelets around wrists. We seem to be an average large family hanging out in the VIP seats in a city baseball game, the skyline of downtown our canvas behind the scoreboard, an intermingling of new and old. Trains amble by among ancient smoke stacks, high rise businesses, and new construction.
America's favorite pastime (or longest pastime depending on who you're talking to) is pretty awesome VIP-style, which involves white table cloths and free food. We eat our second lunch of the day and then head to our stadium seats.

The kids dance to the beat of the music, which blasts over intercoms. The players stroll the Alabama red dirt to take bat. 

It's the first inning and the kids' new white t-shirts reveal caramel stains from multiple trips to the cooler for fizzy beverages. Bright eyes and grins all around as they take in the moment and the joy of each others presence. It's been a few months since we've all been together. 

By the third inning, I'm determined they've become barn animals by the scatterings of ankle deep crumpled bags, along with sunflower seeds and peanut hulls. Kevin reverts to his baseball days, a gob of sunflower seeds in his cheek, spitting the shells across all creation like a squirrel. So much for VIP.

It's over ninety degrees, but a breeze sweeps in and ruffles my dress and hair. It is glorious. The field, the skyline. The youngest boy is at my right shoulder shoveling barrels of roasted peanuts into his mouth. He suddenly shouts, mouth full and pointing, "Hey look at that bird!" A tiny sparrow alights on the black wire that secures the netting behind home plate. We watch it for a moment as it turns its head side to side admiring us. An explosion erupts from the crowd from a play and the bird flies off. 

Shells are crushed under our feet like we're at a popular steakhouse restaurant rather than out in the open air and sunlight. He peers up and asks, "Hey, where do peanuts come from anyway?" No time for a reply as he jumps up, leaving the metal chair slapping loud behind him. I google growing peanuts and wait for his return. He comes back swinging a red pail by the handle, brimming with more. 

We huddle over my phone for pictures and an abbreviated lesson on peanut growth. Who knew they aren't actually nuts? They're legumes like peas and beans. We go back to watching the game.

As the air sweeps in to ruffle the piles of trash encircling us, I want to ask him about their new foster home. I want to ask about his heart. There's an upcoming photo shoot for their faces to be made public, available for adoption. I wonder how a young child processes all this moving around? Different schools, new neighborhoods, living with strangers over and over again. I wonder if he's lost hope. Does he feel unwanted? I want to quote scripture and dive into the depths of his heart. 

Considering we're yelling out Harry Belefonte's "Day-O" and Queen's "We Will Rock You" every few seconds, it feels bizarre to ask him these questions. Excavating the mounds of glass and emotions beneath the Cheshire cat grins and joy of a baseball game doesn't feel right.

We will adopt their sister in a few weeks . . . I want to say "We really wish things were different and our family could adopt you too." But I know it's not the right thing to say for now. My tongue is glued to my mouth and I just sit. Heavy words hang and want to come out. 

How can serious talk happen when an enormous foam taco, bakery chef, ice cream cone, and hot dog appear on the field between innings to run a race? Who are these people that agree to this kind of job- dressing up as weird characters? Little Bitty and I chant "ice cream, ice cream, ice cream" over and over as we pump our fists in the air, because who wants a taco or hot dog to win? The hot dog crashes into the cone and chef man wins. I boo loudly, hands cupped to my mouth. The only one shouting from VIP, possibly the entire stadium. The boys were cheering for the hot dog.

Little Bitty winds up in her younger brother's lap. They place hands together and she says, "Your skin is brown like mine." He says, "You have baby hands." He shouts back to us, "Hey, do you curl her hair to be like this?" We laugh and tell him his hair would be the same way if it grew long, all spirals and ringlets. He unconsciously strokes and twists her hair in his hand, petting her like a cat. She grins in her sweet way, tilts her head sideways, and begins to dance. 

And I think maybe just a sense of normalcy in a world of brokenness is chemotherapy to the soul. Hard talks can happen later if they want to bring things up. Maybe this is their place of rest in a confusing world. So we stay to the end of the game and let them run onto the field with bare feet, pretending to be minor league players, using the real team balls to play catch. 

Then we drive to meet their new foster parents at a downtown gas station- an answered prayer- finally a home with a strong mama and daddy figure. We send them home with at least five pounds of roasted peanuts in a wadded up brown paper bag. Hugs and kisses all around.

This part of my life is beginning to feel normal and it really scares me. The boys have become like cousins to my biological kids. We only know an inch in the equator of story. That inch terrifies me. The abuse and neglect and horrible brokenness, the grief.

My brain sails to years from now. Will they ever be adopted? Will they age out of foster care and live life on the streets? Become numbers strummed out over the nightly news? How will this effect my children, their biological sister?  

This element of parenting really sucks.

This fear. 

I want to know. I want to protect.  

The unknowns tap me on the shoulder at 1:23am and I'm sitting on the couch with a bag of Doritos worrying and cramming in corn chips. Sick with fear; yet knowing we're exactly where we're supposed to be .

And then I think, isn't all parenting ultimately a release, a surrender to One greater? Even for the atheist, there's a letting go to the ocean of unknowns, even if they don't believe in One greater. For me, as a Christian, I know His plan from the beginning of all time was for Little Bitty to become ours forever. 

His plan also includes us to love and beg the Father to rescue her two brothers, spiritually more than anything. 

The future is all so utterly unknown to me, to all of us. The steps of My children, their choices, their lives. Isaiah 49:15 comes to mind: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! 

The reality of mamas who give birth and catch a Greyhound bus back across town alone to go get high, leaving little ones behind at the hospital. This world where mamas live with souls so tortured, they burn their babies or fling them across the room like rag dolls. Disabled children surviving and hospitalized, left alone to heal and be placed in foster care.
"Though she may forget, I will not forget you!" 

Although the neurons in the gray matter can't connect it all - why I'm here and they are there- I know it's part of God's mystery, His sovereignty, grace, and saying yes to His call to put one foot in front of the other into the scary, dark places. To stand in the gap to reach the broken. And He's there before us, behind us, and with us. 

It all comes down to grace. That's where I'm always led back to. With my bag of Doritos. In the stumbling out of bed into brambles of horrifying scenarios and real life statistics, there's truth I can rest in. I have to belly flop into the only thing that is sure- I'm insanely loved and pursued by the One who knows and sees. He cares more about all these children than I possibly can.

I'm incapable of having all the answers. Grace allows me to surrender to the One who knows. That's all I have to cling to- hope and grace. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Laying It on the Altar

Written by Erin Whidden 

My sweet little roly poly baby had been with me since August. From the beginning of her placement, whenever the question of adoption was broached (as it inevitably is), my answer was always a firm "no." But as the cold of winter began to give way into the newness of spring, my heart began to change. I knew God was putting something more on the table for me. . . more than "just" fostering. . . I began to contemplate the idea of adoption. Let me be clear, this was not a decision I went into lightly. I came up with what seemed to be a million reasons that adoption was not a good choice for me right now. . . and they were all great reasons. But God didn't let up. He kept impressing it on my heart that I was to say yes to the possibility of adoption for my baby. Until finally I did just that. . . I changed my firm "no" to a hopeful "yes." 

With a court date quickly approaching, I was hoping and praying that the "family friend" who was seeking custody of my sweet BB would lose interest, be scared away, or otherwise be found unfit. I prayed and prayed that this baby I loved, this baby I said yes to would become mine forever. But I've learned in foster care that nothing is ever a given. Even if they tell you it's a done deal, things can still change. 

So I tried to protect my heart, but I think I was already too far gone in my fantasy of starting my forever family. I had our adoption day picture ideas already worked out. . . matching outfits with a smiling toddler at my knee holding a vintage chalkboard that shared our good news of forever. 

I had a plan of secrecy all worked out so that I could tell my church family about my beloved's adoption with her surprise baptism. I wanted more than anything to watch a judge sign the papers that made my sweet girl mine forever. 

And even as I daydreamed my way into being a mommy, 
BB's court day was inching ever closer, robbing 
me of my ability to breathe. 

The week before court was a nightmare. I had already had a rough spring and my anxiety and fear were at an all-time high as May rolled around. Anxiety and fear turned into despair as I found out some information that devastated me. In order for my baby girl to stay with me, it would take a full on miracle. I found myself wanting to spend every spare second holding and loving on my baby, but found myself busier than ever and not able to relax and enjoy our time together when we were at home. And to add insult to injury, I was committed to a small group (Life group through Church of the Highlands) and the retreat was schedule for my last weekend with my lovey before court. Are you kidding me? I was more than irritated at the timing of this retreat, but a commitment is a commitment, so I sent my baby to respite care for the night and headed downtown for the retreat exactly a week before heading that same direction for court. 

On the way to the retreat, God showed me the gravity of the sacrifice that was made by both the Father and the Son in order for my relationship with Him to ever be restored... Jesus was sent by His Father, out of a place of perfection and beauty, to live in a putrid and hopeless place. I can only imagine the heartbreak that God the Father must have had as He sent his Son to a place where He knew He would be tortured and killed. 

And then I was reminded of Abraham... He waited for decades for God to fulfill His promise of a son, but he never lost faith in his God. Soon enough, Abraham's camp was filled with the joyful giggles of his long-awaited son as he played. I can see him now, bouncing little Isaac on his knee and then pulling him in tight for a hug. But the day came when God asked the unthinkable of Abraham. He asked him for his son. I don't know that I could comprehend the grief and desperation that he felt as he tied his child to the altar, fully intending to make the ultimate sacrifice to his God. Yet, there in the bushes, God provided a sacrificial ram instead. He also showed me the story of Hannah. She was barren and dejected. She prayed for years to have a child. God answered her prayers and she gave birth to Samuel. After he was weaned, Hannah took her only child to God's temple, offering him back to God... to be raised in the courts of the Lord. I imagine that it took every ounce of her self control to walk away while her child called out after her, not realizing that God was ordering his steps. The heartbreak and depression she must have felt as she arrived back home without her child. The utter loss that she suffered so that God's will for Samuel's life would be accomplished. 

I arrived at the retreat a sobbing mess. I was physically and emotionally spent from my week. I was overcome with anxiety, fear and despair. But as I left the retreat Friday night, after many tears and fervent praying, I went home knowing for certain that God loved my BB more than I ever would, or could even comprehend. He sees her, He knows her by name, and He is preparing her for a future that will glorify His name. I felt at peace that God would go before me. He would prepare the path for court, and we would be okay. As hard as it would be to let go and trust Him, I had to do it. 

I know without a shadow of a doubt that there is something incredibly special about BB. God has a plan for her life. She will do mighty things for Him. And if I'm not the mommy who is set apart to prepare her for this, then it's time for me to let go. It's time for me to be okay with taking her to the temple courts and letting her be raised so that His will for her life will be accomplished. 
Let HIS name be praised. 

I truly wish that I was writing this while my baby sleeps in the other room. I prayed that she would come home with me. I hoped that I would be the mommy set apart to raise her. But I'm not. 

A week and a half ago, I handed my sweet baby off to a stranger and I drove home from court by myself. I have cried myself to sleep more times than not and I have longed to wrap my arms around that sweet girl every second that she's been gone. It hurts to lose a child. 

But I can say without hesitation. . . even though my hopes and dreams of "forever" with my baby will not come to fruition, 
His name be praised. 

I am grieving, but He gives me strength for each new day. And with each new day comes the possibility of a new little life to love on until it's their time to move on. Whatever my forever may look like, I'm just glad He's at the center. 

Erin Whidden is a dear friend and single foster mama in Birmingham, Alabama. Please follow her blog Fostering Fancies to keep up with her journey.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Some Things I Wish You Knew...

Written by Rachel Ashcraft 

The above photo was taken at Rachel's church, where members were invited to come forward and write how Jesus has broken the chains in their lives. One of their foster children wrote the words along the bottom edge "Jesus gave me a foster family."  Then he drew a picture of their family.

Things I want Christians to understand about Foster Care:
1. Our God is a God of reconciliation 

• Throughout the story of the Bible, God makes clear that he desires to reconcile his people to Him and to reconcile people to each other.

In a risky project He sent His son incarnate to earth to live and die for us. Then, through resurrection He invites each of Jesus’s disciples to follow the path of the cross - to live a crucified life so that Christ’s work of reconciliation in his kingdom may continue through us. The God of the universe invites us to join in his work of the kingdom. Was God’s way successful? Was it a good idea? What is worth it? In this time of the kingdom being here but not yet fully here - God has not succeeded by any earthly standard of success. Jesus said, “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” - Matthew 7. What if God had to have a certain “success rate” to make Jesus’s death and resurrection worth it to Him? Do we really appreciate and understand all God has done for us? Did that stop Him from recklessly pursuing us?

No, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” - Romans 5.

 • It seems that in the church we are often too concerned with numbers, with earthly definitions of success.

We are sinful and fearful. We fear that our homes will become unsafe, we fear that foster care will negatively impact our own families, we fear that the children in our care won’t be changed because of our efforts, we fear not making a difference, we fear the inevitable grief that comes from letting go, we fear having to get our hands messy walking with birth family.

We fear. But God says over and over to his people, “Do not be afraid.” 

He promises He will be with us - Do we believe Him?

2. Christ changes the story of family 

 • Much of the time people fear foster care and involving themselves with it because “how will it affect my family and kids?”

In the American church, we often idolize things that are meant to be good - but not our gods. Family is one of these - family is good - but it is not God. 

• Once, in an effort to understand family through God’s eyes - I studied each time family was discussed through the Bible and what I found rocked me to the core and challenged every goal I had for my life. You may think it’s silly I didn’t realize this before but be gracious with me - we are all works in progress. In the Old Testament, a high emphasis was placed on people’s biological families. Genealogies were important, the family blood was important. Miracles often included the birth of a biological child. This was the way God blessed and showed favor to his people - through their biological children. I assumed this continued in the New Testament but it doesn’t. The last miracle pregnancy that was desired was Elizabeth with John the Baptist - who came to prepare the way for Jesus. And, the very last biological birth miracle was an undesired pregnancy that brought about Jesus. After that, there are no more miracle births in scripture. There are guidelines for having a Christ centered family, but the emphasis is entirely on Jesus’s Kingdom and what I have come to call Kingdom Family. Everything is about bringing the good news of Jesus to the world and serving and sacrificing for others.

Jesus calls his followers is family and we are a family in Him. This narrative is so strong and the contrast from Old to New Testament so stark that I do not believe avoiding foster care or other ministry in an effort to make our own biological families lives comfortable will be met with much understanding from the Lord.

When I finished the study and had typed it up, I said to my husband, “&@^$, God is serious about this.” We were always going to be foster parents, “Later, once we’ve had our own kids and they’re older, when we’re a little more secure financially” and we realized, that wasn’t going to cut it. Life is a vapor and we can’t waste it pursuing our own comfort.

Jen Hatmaker says in Interrupted, “All of a sudden, I saw my exact reflection in Peter: devoted but selfish, committed but misguided. And that is not going to be enough. It won’t suffice to claim good intentions. Saying “I meant well” is not going to cut it. Not with God screaming, begging, pleading, urging us to love mercy and justice, to feed the poor and the orphaned, to care for the last and least in nearly every book of the Bible. It will not be enough one day to stand before Jesus and say, “Oh? Were You serious about all that?” 

3. “I could never……”

This is just a pet peeve of foster parents.

Here’s the thing, we could never do foster care because: “we get attached, it’s too hard, the government is all in our business, I can’t handle all the behavior of kids from hard places” We get it - we don’t feel like we can do it either. 

But, we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength and we are crucified with Christ and the life we now live - we live through faith in Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. We just show up, we just continue to say yes despite feeling hopeless on our own, and God sees us through it. Of course, “you could never” but “God can always”.

I know the fear of loss, but we don’t just avoid life because we will one day die. We don’t avoid marriage because our spouse may die, we don’t avoid having children even though they may run away from our guidance, they may choose not to have anything to do with us, they may die a tragic and early death. Our lives are laden with grief and loss - we live in a broken world. But, trying to avoid loss does the opposite, it ensures it - because the only way to eventually avoid loss is to commit yourself to God’s Kingdom and restoration in his kingdom. Eventually, we lose everyone in our lives and the only hope is God’s Kingdom.

Saying, “I could never because I’d get too attached” limits the glory of the full restoration of God’s kingdom. We are trying to trust in ourselves to stay safe and happy instead of jumping all in with God. So what can we do? - God expects his people to join Him in the project of reconciliation and bringing about his Kingdom in it’s full glory. As the church body, we must remember that Jesus met us in our mess. We need to be ready to get messy with families that need Jesus just as we do. 

 --- Would you consider intentionally nurturing the foster families and the children they bring into their homes that attend your church?

Ask foster parents what they need. We all need different things- some of us need help with physical things like diapers, food, clothing. Some of us have spent night after night comforting a frightened child and we need someone to come sit with our kids at our home so we can take a nap. Some of us need someone to come sit and fold laundry with us, some of us need someone who’s approved to transport the children to visits, extracurricular activities. Some of us need help with childcare. Some of us need coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. We pretty much all need people willing to meet us where we are. We are drowning in this ministry and sometimes even making it to a foster event is beyond what we are able to do. We are called to be a Kingdom family, and that means we must rely on intentional relationships and not just programming to love and uplift each other. Intentionally befriend a foster family and join their walk.

--- Would you consider noticing the lonely at your church? Step out of your comfort zone and away from the people you know, look around you, get off your phone. Search for the overwhelmed single mama, the special needs child who needs acceptance, the poor that may feel out of place, the person who’s fighting addiction, the scared child in foster care that has seen too much brokenness in their lives already, the foster family that isn’t sure how they are going to make it through the next hour?

---We are not all called to do the same things, we are meant to be a full body and not a collection of arms. Not everyone is meant to be a foster family, but everyone is called to work towards reconciliation especially among the least of these.

In America, the temptation is to make our churches a collection of appendixes - a group of people who were maybe relevant once, but have become so ingrained in what is safe and secure that we have lost our original purpose. Would you commit to praying daily for God to reveal the way he wants to use you in his kingdom?

And, would you pray for courage to follow Him where he calls you?

-- Christ is not safe, his path leads to death. If our lives look no different than the world around us, if we sacrifice only what costs us nothing, we are the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son - we want the father’s blessings but none of his character. Because the church is made of sinful people, we are tempted to become like the elder brother and not the Father. We want to judge the prodigal son and not work for and rejoice with his reconciliation. Let us be a people that seek out to restore the prodigal of our cities to the father and to ourselves. 

Would you pray for God to show you where in your life you may be behaving like an elder brother and not like the Father? Let us all seek to know more of the Father and to have our hearts broken for what breaks His?

Rachel Ashcraft and her husband, Aaron, are licensed foster parents in Birmingham, AL. She's thankful that Jesus met her in her own sin and mess and that He teaches us to love others in the same way.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

When I Want to Give Up

Written by Anna Brooke Cosper

My heart is heavy as I write. My soul is weary. My body tired. Sometimes I want to quit. To give up. To ignore the world around me. To shut out the children so desperately crying out, because it’s so hard to love them as they kick and scream and rage against us. It’s so much easier to give up. Just say you tried, but failed. Right? 

Oh how lucky we are that God did not give up on us. God did not ignore us. God did not shut us out. When we were crying out, when we kicked and screamed and raged against God’s will, He never gave up on us. Yet, how quick we are to give up on them. 

I just want it all to go away, so their lives can be normal. But their life will never be normal. They will always fear being taken away from what they have known. They will always fear the unknown. Their trauma, their scars, their wounds will never go away. 

They have to live with it 
for the rest of their lives. 

It was so easy to ignore them before. To pretend that they didn’t exist. 

But now they live beside me. Now they eat with me and sit next to me during church. Now it is our job to pick up the shattered pieces of their little lives and try to piece them back together. Because now they call me sister

I hear people say they simply couldn’t do what we do, because they just couldn’t love them and have them leave. If we don’t love them who will? We don’t have enough people in this world willing to get hurt, willing to give their hearts away for these kids. We have too many who give up, who ignore them, who leave this job to others, and who don’t recognize these children as children, but as cases… just another story on the news. It’s just easier to ignore it. 

But once you hold that crying child in your arms, once you love them only to have them taken away, once you feel that pain, that aching pain in your heart, longing to be comforted, you finally understand why you don’t give up. You know that if you give up, that’s one more child without love. One more child having to wonder if her cries are heard in the raging waters of this world. If they matter. If they mean anything. 

So, that is why I don’t give up. that is why I push forward in this unending journey. That is why I write for these children, who desperately need a voice. Because God didn’t give up on me. God didn’t ignore me. He did not shut me out, so I have no right to give up on them, to ignore them, to shut them out.

Because I am loved, I am to love them also.  

Anna Brooke is a 13-year old homeschooler who lives in north Alabama with her family. She has five older siblings, and (currently) two younger foster siblings. Her dream has always been to be a stay-at-home mom. She started blogging at the age of 12, out of a desire to be a voice for children in care. She is a sinner saved by grace and considers it a great gift to be able to love children in foster care, and to be their sister. Anna Brooke is a simple girl who enjoys reading, cooking, gardening, and working with her hands. She loves her family and she loves her Lord. She is a girl desperate for Jesus and loves sharing him with the foster children within her home. Please visit Anna Brooke's blog and encourage her as she shares her heart with the world.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Freedom to Choose

Written by Tabitha Watts

One day, my father was drunk and fighting with my mom, and all of us kids were there, watching, as usual. My father saw us watching and became angry. He demanded that we choose, right then, whether to live with him or our mother. I had never stood up to my father before because that usually led to a beating, but this time was different. I told him that I wanted to live with my mom, so he ordered me to leave. After years of abuse, at that moment, I was strong enough to know that I did not want to live the life my parents had chosen. At the age of nine, I understood that I had the ability to make better choices. Although I did not know these words at that time, I now realize that hope, along with persistence, hard work, and dedication are the qualities I need to achieve my dreams.

I’m 24-years-old now. By the time I was 16, I had found security and stability again in my life. It was actually offered to me much earlier, but it took me a while to understand that. My third set of foster parents, who took in my two sisters and me “for the weekend” when I was 11-years-old, stayed with all of us through all our tough teen years and eventually became our legal guardians. I even left them for a few years and lived in group homes, thinking I could do better. But they just waited on me to come back. And I did. I’m grown up and independent now, but I need them as much as ever. They love me, and I know that now. 

But the memories are still there…

As I child, I dreamed of doing what other people would consider “normal things.” I imagined regularly attending church, like the kids I saw when I occasionally went to church with my grandmother. There, I saw kids going to Sunday School, learning about Jesus, making things, and playing on the playground. Normal things, but things I did not get to do. One day a pastor came to our house to convince my parents to go to his church. My father refused, but agreed to allow the pastor to take my siblings and me to church. I achieved my childhood dream of being a normal kid in Sunday School, and every week, I was able to rest my head on the lap of a woman named Ruth during the church service. Even now, it makes me cry to remember the hope that those little things gave me for my future.

Sometimes, the traumatic memories flood in unexpectedly….

I am walking home from the school bus stop. Mom had told me to go
 to our friend’s trailer right across from ours. 
I think it was my aunt’s daughter’s place. 
I walk on the dirt and rocks, and while I'm walking I see police officers everywhere!
 I am only 10-years-old, and I’m trying to figure out what is going on. 

My mother told me that my sister told her boyfriend 
what had been going on at home. 

I was appalled! 
I thought I was the only one that this happened to. I thought he did that to me by accident! 
But now I know it wasn’t an accident!

I see my older sister walking back with her boyfriend holding her. 
As she comes closer, I see that she is crying. 
She never used to cry. 
I know something really bad is going on. 
My brothers aren't home yet.

I'm really confused. But become bold and tell the policemen what happened to me. They stare and my mom says, “Are you serious?”

I turn to my mamma and say, "Yes, mommy! That's why I was underneath the bed when you woke daddy up this morning. I pretended to fall off the bed onto the floor and under the bed so you wouldn't think anything."

We all walk back to our trailer to gather some clothes for the week. Suddenly, my mom 
tells us to hurry and go back to the other trailer because our father is coming home. 
We all race back to my cousin’s trailer and lock the doors. 

When he walks in, he's furious when he sees our trailer a complete and total mess. 
In our rush to gather stuff; our clothes are everywhere. There is no room to see the ground. 
He bangs on the door of my cousin’s home.

"What the hell is going on?" 
He tries to get in, but can't.

Then... I'm not sure exactly what happened. 

All I know is my sister’s boyfriend, only a teenager, both destroyed and saved my family. 
He is the one who reported our family secrets to the police. Who knows where we'd be if my sister didn't trust him enough to tell him what was going on. 

It’s funny. Not all my memories are bad. Sometimes, the flashbacks remind me that not every moment of my childhood was destructive ....

I’m a young adult and I am walking to my apartment after I get off work. The rain calms. I notice a pink bucket and puddle of water that surrounds it along with a few other things that my neighbors have out for their children to play with. There is a pink and white playhouse, a kid’s red and yellow picnic table, a small brown trampoline, and a few other random toys. 

Anyway it reminded me of a rainy day when I was 10, and I still lived with my biological family in that same trailer park where the police were that day our lives changed.

The rain. The toys. They suddenly remind me of a particular day when all of my family seems so incredibly happy. My brothers and sisters and the neighbor’s kids all get out some random toys to play with in the rain. There is this huge mud puddle that you could almost swim in. We all love to play in it!

Even my father was outside playing with us. And he wasn't even drunk. My mother was there too.

It’s a random happy memory. 
Sometimes the smallest things remind me of my past.

I had two more big dreams as a child. I wanted to play soccer and help take care of babies. Once I moved in with my current guardians, I was able to play soccer on a community team and eventually played varsity soccer for my high school, so I have achieved that dream. I have always been attracted to babies and played with dolls until I was almost fourteen. I only stopped then because my niece was born, and I had a real baby to nurture. Before I knew what career I might choose, I knew that I wanted to work with babies. I began searching for a career that would allow me to work with them and decided I wanted to become a neonatal nurse.

My sister and I were the first in our biological family to graduate from high school and attend college; something we could never have dreamed of in our early life.

Some of my dreams haven’t yet come true. College was tougher than I expected because I had lost so many opportunities to learn when I was younger. There was a huge gap. I survived through a few years, but that dream is on hold now. I’m still persevering, but in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. I have been involved in intensive therapy to help me overcome my losses. I’m about to marry a loving man. I also take care of my fiance's son.

And I followed in my guardian’s footsteps and have adopted a beautiful baby girl. I brought her home from the hospital and I adore her.

No matter how difficult my life was, I now have to stop and think about all I have and how far I’ve come. I have a great support system. I am eternally grateful to God and my legal guardians, who were there through every aspect of my life, for the opportunities they gave me. Without them I honestly don’t know where I would be.

You can’t ever erase everything. No matter how good your life may be right now, there will always be some memories that you can never forget, no matter how hard you try. But now, I have the freedom to choose the course my life will take. And I choose to view my traumatic past as part of my history. I will not let it determine my future.

Tabitha Watts is a real life hero. She's a stay-at-home mama and resides in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Love 'Em and Let 'Em Go

Written by Jennifer Clarke

I’ve always been open to adoption.

But there are two things I said I would never do:

1.)Adopt a child here in the States.
2.)Be a foster parent.

Don’t worry, I have nothing against American children. My hesitancy was never about the kids. It’s about their circumstances.

You see, I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s hearing way too many horror stories of people who had adopted children in the U.S. only to have the biological parents knock on their door or serve them court papers six months or two years or five years down the road, demanding them back.

I had seen plenty of eyewitness news stories of the devastation imposed on the adoptive parents and the children as they were wrenched from each other’s arms, with tears trailing down their cheeks as they sobbed.

I didn’t want that to happen to me.

Love them only to lose them?

Take care of them and then hand them back?

Dry their tears and change their diapers and read them books and wipe their noses and help with homework and say prayers and give baths and administer discipline and give hugs and cook and clean and comfort and teach and admonish…

and then give them up?

No thanks!! Who in their right mind would sign up for that?!

I’ll just go the international adoption route,” I said.

That way all biological ties to the child are far, far away and I can rest easy at night,” I said.

And look at me now…

Foster mom to three boys. Boys who look like they belong in our family. Boys who are acting more and more like they belong in our family. Boys who now seem in every way like they belong in our family.

But beneath our hugs and our smiles and our squabbles and our routines and our love is the realization that they’ll probably leave one day.

Chances are, they’ll return to their biological family. It may be in a month. Maybe in six. Maybe in a year. I have no idea.

So what changed my mind?

Well, it was a long process, to be sure. And it required a lot of molding on God’s part.

And a lot of stretching on my part.

Which is also God’s grace. So it wasn’t me.

It was all Him.

But here’s one of the most important lessons that wrought a change:

There are no guarantees with any child.

And when I try to consider my old attitude from God’s perspective…

well, it starts to look pretty presumptuous.

Because in reality, my own children aren’t really my own, either.

I’m not guaranteed the next second with my biological children, much less the next hour, or day, or month, or year.  But that doesn’t stop me from pouring every ounce of love and care and nurture, and blood and sweat and tears into them anyway.

And so I began to realize how supremely selfish it had been for me to refuse food, shelter, and love to a needy child just because I wasn’t guaranteed tomorrow with them.

I had fooled myself into thinking I would love them too much to let them go.

But the truth is, that’s not love at all.

The parent-child relationship is an incredibly strong bond. I believe God created it that way.

But sometimes we erect it as an idol…

preserving it and guarding it and fiercely protecting it at all costs

instead of seeing it for what it really is: a sacred calling to raise children for Him.

It’s not about me at all. I’m just the means through which God wants to make disciples of my children

and any other children in my care.

And so whether I have them in my home for an hour or a day or a month or eighteen years…

and whether they’re biological or adopted or foster…

I’m going to love them with reckless abandon.

Because I’m not guaranteed tomorrow.

And I’m going to point them to Him.

Because that’s really the point anyway.

“…you do not know what tomorrow will bring.
What is your life?
For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
Instead you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live & do this or that.’
As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
James 4:14-16

Jennifer Clarke is a foster mom and author of the blog A Divine Encounter and also moderates the Grace & Truth weekly link-up. Please visit her blog and encourage her. Also follow her blog on Facebook.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Other Side of Foster Care

Written by Jason Johnson

We met her for the first time in a downtown courtroom - the same place we would see her for the last time nearly one year later. Although we most likely will never know her beyond that, a piece of her will always be a part of us - literally.

It was the first court hearing since her baby girl had been removed from her custody by Child Protective Services and placed in our care a few weeks earlier. Given the particular circumstances of the case, the judge would soon inform her she was on track to losing her parental rights over her child. While the law was right and just that day, the emotions were equally raw and real. She was devastated - the demons in her life she could not get out from under were deep and destructive to both her and her baby. We were overwhelmed - wondering how our world could be so broken that an entire legal system must be set up to protect abused children from those who might harm them. Files lined the courtroom that day, each representing a case in which a child needed to be protected and a parent needed to be disciplined. Stacks of broken stories filled the room. We were there to participate in just one.

Difficult doesn't describe it - standing for the first time with the mom of the baby the state had placed in our home and we were now loving and raising as our own. Wondering what she was thinking and feeling, what her life was like that led her to that point and bothered by the fact that no one loved her enough to help her - to stop her from destroying herself and prevent her from ever being in the position she now found herself in.

Our worlds couldn't be more different. The contrast between the two was magnified that day as they collided for the first time. One of relative ease and privilege and opportunity now standing with one full of brokenness, hopelessness and tragedy. How could we live in the same world but come from two very different ones at the same time? More than that, why was this cold, sterile courtroom the first time our worlds were ever intersecting? How come no one was there for her to help prevent her from ever being in the position she was now in - how come we weren't there for her, or there to help any of the other hundreds of stories stacked around the room that day from ever getting to that point? What kind of world were we living in that allowed us to become so disconnected from or ignorant of their worlds?

Fostering abused, neglected and marginalized children is by nature reactionary - a necessary response to circumstances often requiring swift, immediate and sometimes severe measures to protect the rights of the vulnerable. It is a good and right and just solution to a very real problem - but it is not the only solution, neither is it the ultimate one.

On one side of foster care is the need for us to respond to the plight of these kids and intercede on their behalf. It's right and honorable and a reflection of the heart of God to secure and protect the rights of the helpless and hopeless. On the other side of foster care is the need for us to proactively respond to the brokenness of families and intercede on their behalf to ensure that their children never become foster kids in the first place. This too is right and honorable and a reflection of the heart of God to bring healing to what is broken and hope to what otherwise is destined for destruction.

Throughout the last 20 months of loving and raising this precious baby girl in our home, the joy of having her and now adopting her as our own is never void of the reality that maybe, just maybe all of this could have been avoided. The first time our baby girl's mom met a follower of Jesus who loved her and wanted to see her life healed and restored and her daughter grow up in a safe and loving environment should not have been in that courtroom chaperoned by lawyers and standing before a judge. Perhaps long before our worlds collided that day something could have been done to prevent that day from ever happening. Perhaps rather than simply responding to the consequences of other peoples brokenness we have a responsibility to proactively engage them in the midst of it - to bring healing and hope and to help minimize, if not render null and void all together, repercussions perpetuating themselves any further. 

In the end, perhaps the call of the Church is not just to foster abused, neglected and marginalized kids but also to help prevent them from ever becoming abused, neglected and marginalized foster kids in the first place. Let's be both the back door response to the need that exists while at the same time proactively work to close the front door on any new children being removed from their homes and adding to the stacks of files that, in God's ideal, should never exist in the first place.

Thank you to author, Jason Johnson, for allowing me to share
The Other Side of Foster Care. Jason and his wife, Emily,
have four daughters- the youngest adopted through the foster care system. Jason travels the country preaching, teaching and advocating for a movement of the Gospel and adoption in the Church. Please visit his blog for more information on his ministry.