When God gives you dreams that haven’t come true.

Many years ago, I had a dream that has stuck with me. It was soon after I met Jesus, and I was green to practicing faith and the gifts that come with it. I don’t know that I credited the dream to Him then, but it clung to the rafters of my mind, resistant to the passage of years and aging and busyness. Now I know better. Father gives dreams to His sons and daughters. Even though I lacked the skill and knowledge to do much with it back then, this dream was from the Lord.

In it, there was a home. A big, beautiful home set on a slice of green land filled with brush and trees and wild flowers. The house had a long porch that hugged the outer walls on the front, and shutters sandwiched each window. Dormers made it look as though the house had warm, smiling eyes. A dirt road lined with trees whose branches hung low led you to the home, which glowed with a soft, gentle yellow color, either because we painted it that way or because the original color had faded. Outside the old screen door lay a comfy, snoozing dog, and rocking chairs cluttered the porch. The inside of this home was just as charming. The wood floors creaked, the moldings were detailed and brilliant, the air smelled of good things coming to life in the kitchen’s double ovens. Just down the hall from the front door was a little room that turned out to be the heartbeat of the home. It served as a check-up room for the resident doctor.

This home wasn’t just where I lived with my family, though that was true. It also served as a safe place for women to come and grow their babies until we found them new families. Babies they didn’t want or couldn’t keep. During their time with us, I gathered, they lived there, took care of themselves, helped around the house,  and learned about the Creator of those babies in their wombs. We cared for their needs and made them members of our family. At the end, the babies stayed with us until we could find the God-ordained family for them to go home to.

I had that dream a few times in a row until it disappeared from my nights. It hasn’t returned since then, but still it stays in my mind, tucked away like a sweet gift I’m not yet permitted to open.

One time years ago my husband said aloud ‘What if we rescued women who were planning to abort their babies? Took care of them, provided them medical care and handled the adoption. If you took all the worries and question marks away, I bet most women would take our offer. I think he’s right. I don’t think the power of suggestion in what he said is what brought on my dreams. No. Father often speaks to people in groups or pairs, to bring confirmation and clarity. This was one of those times.

All these years later, I don’t have a big house in the country filled with sweet, broken women shattered by the layers of an uneasy, ungenerous life. Daughters marked by bad nights or bad labels, about to make a heavy, life-altering decision. We’ve not cradled any of those babies in our arms, and we’ve not eaten any meals in the kitchen at the old table stretched out in front of the hearth. We’ve never even talked about his statement or my dream again. Years have passed, life has moved forward and there’s been no discussion of what could be one day.

Because we don’t have to. You can’t force the things that only God can birth. Maybe we’ll have that safe haven someday. Maybe I’ll speak aloud this dream and it will awaken in the heart of one of my daughters, or one of you instead. It is His and His alone to piece together, and I trust that He will. Because a good Father will bring to fruition the plans and purposes that rescue the lost children He loves so much.

All I know is that dreams are tools that my Creator uses to work in and through us. I find that so humbling. That this great, great God who imagined up and molded together everything good and right that ever has or ever will exist, would think to use this simple girl. What does He see that I don’t? I’m not sure, but I’m utterly grateful all the same. And it only makes me want to keep dreaming.

Dreaming with you,
Mande

In Praise of Unexpected Babies.

On our first date, I vaguely remember my now husband asking what I wanted for my future. He was 28, and I was a very green, but mature, 21 years old. He made it clear from the beginning that he was looking for serious, not casual. And it was fine by me. Because this girl wanted a husband and children.

But the matter of how I got those children was a whole other discussion. I lived life with a painful, chronic condition called endometriosis. It made having children naturally difficult, and so I spent my teen years and the beginning of adulthood assuming I’d bypass all that struggle by just adopting. I was fine with it, completely. And James seemed to be fine with that as well.

Until those two little lines showed up on the pregnancy test. Just a few months after becoming engaged, we knew this situation wasn’t ideal, nor was it our plan. But we were thrilled nonetheless. So were our parents and friends. I shifted quickly from adoption to shopping for maternity clothes with no hesitation, and jumped in.

We met Olivia for the first time in late October, as the first snowfall of the season fell quietly outside the window of my labor and delivery room. After a high-risk pregnancy that developed into preeclampsia, I was induced nearly a month before her due date. She was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. I glanced at my soon-to-be husband as he stood over the incubator that held his new baby girl and saw tears fall freely down his cheeks like a tidal wave. A childhood spent moving to and fro, pricked by the pain of rejection and abandonment, leaked out of him as his finger gently held the tiny preemie-sized oxygen mask over Olivia’s perfectly appointed face. Here was redemption, the second chance he wasn’t sure he’d receive, the stability of a whole family he had longed for so badly. Wrapped in a blanket so tightly only her sweet eyes were visible, he cradled her with equal parts strength and tenderness.

We started our married life as parents and it was rough. So rough. We almost didn’t make it. But our bright spot was always the surprise child we were shocked to have. And Father wasn’t done.

Two more pink lines rattled me on a winter evening after work. Natalee came to us just one month shy of five years after Olivia had been born. After all those years of no more babies, I had accepted the unexpected gift of a baby as the immense blessing it was and never felt shortchanged by having just one. Our family of three felt complete if it was God’s design. But then we became four. Olivia was overwhelmed with excitement. A canvas print hangs in my bedroom of the moment when my first surprise child met my second surprise child and it oozes joy, beauty, goodness. The perfection of the Father’s hand contained in our second daughter took my breath away. Two, Lord? How did You see fit to give us two this perfect, this wonderful, this unexpected?

They didn’t come from perfect, deserving parents. We’ve screwed up more than we got right. We faltered more than we aced. But that’s not the kind of gift-giver God is. You don’t have to bend into some equation, be the exceptional or unblemished child, or qualify with the highest marks to receive His favor. The author of the book of Proverbs wrote so we could have greater understanding, wisdom and instruction. In chapter 8, he reveals that when you find God, you find life….and in that life with God, you find favor. You only need to seek, believe, expect, and receive. There favor was, shining with the glow of mercy and grace, held out for us like a gift on the open palms of unconditional Love. Our two babies were, and still are, the most tangible expression of God’s immense adoration of me that I’ve ever acquired. All I need to know about how Father feels about me can be seen by looking at them.

Nearly three years ago, I had a hysterectomy. The endometriosis had progressed to a point that had my doctor begging to toss the mangled parts from my body. They had served me well, but the time had come to go our separate ways. The night before my surgery, I marveled at what God had done with the very thing that should have failed me. From my body came the most stunning gifts. These two little girls had never entered the spaces of my young mind that was busy making plans, imagining, dreaming, and falling in love with the life I was so sure I’d lead. It turned out nothing like the pictures roaming my head.  But it was better. So much better. I thought of the old me, plagued by anxiety and depression, restrained by the shackles of shame and guilt. About the man my husband could have or should have become, now grounded in the wanted weight of raising two beauties who inherited the best of him. About the times we’ve laughed uncontrollably at the dinner table, the hugs we’ve snuggled into each night at bedtime, the life we made in the small hours of each day. About the freedom we experienced as a result of parenthood, coaxing the greatness out of us with whispers, morphing into the best versions of ourselves that could have never evolved outside the framework of family.

For months after the hysterectomy, I was asked several times if the surgery had cut short my plans to ‘try for a boy’. Was I disappointed?

 Me???? Have you seen and met our girls?
Have you basked in the glow that they emit?

No. I’ve never been disappointed or longed for more. It’s impossible to top the good and perfect gift that is held inside the glorious skin belonging to our daughters. And besides, I sure do love a good surprise, y’all.

Thankful,
Mande

Why 5:11pm Matters.

Shorts and tank tops-check.
Flip flops, socks, pajamas and swimsuit-check.
Toothbrush, inhaler, and glasses-check.
Favorite well-loved stuffed animals and a cozy, worn blankie, pictures of the family, mementos from home. All there.

Several months ago, when we gave her the green light to attend her first ever summer camp, my daughter, Natalee, packed her duffel bag. Not because camp was around the corner; it was months away. No, her excitement was so overwhelming that the only thing to do was be constructive and funnel it into packing a bag that she wouldn’t need for quite a while. It sat on the floor at the foot of her bed, waiting patiently to be carried out of her room, down the stairs and tossed into the car.

It’s astonishing the difference one year can make. On this day at this time last year, I tentatively walked up the driveway of the home where Olivia had spent the afternoon with a friend. It was 5:11pm. I know because I glanced at the clock on my dashboard before getting out of the car and it seared into my mind as the events of our summer unfolded. I learned it had been an eventful afternoon. While I worked away at my desk, things had been said, teachers had been called, principals were alerted and a report had been made to police. In the oblivion of my afternoon, a saga was unfolding just across the street. I was busy and I buzzed through my day. But when I pulled into that driveway, the energy and excitement seeped from my bones and pooled on the floor of my car. My limbs became heavy with foreboding and my heart started to beat out of my chest. I had absolutely no idea why. At 5:11pm, I was completely unaware of the way the next few months would play out. Nowhere in my mind was there the notion of foster care or court hearings. But my world was mere moments away from shifting on its axis and my spirit knew that I needed to suit up for the onslaught about to hit me. Without knowing why or actively commanding it to, my body and my heart readied itself for the battle I faintly saw off in the distance. Thirty minutes later, I walked back out to my car, my two sweet babies in tow. Having learned what happened that day in my absence and unsure of how things would unravel, I stood on the tightrope between a loss of consciousness and the drive to attack. My hands shook so fiercely that I wasn’t sure I should drive home. With the sound of my heart thumping in my ears and every hair on my body at attention, the presence of warfare engulfed me. It was Day 1 of the 76-day-battle of last summer.

Just a few days later, on June 19th, I threw items into a duffel bag for both my daughters. I had less than an hour to get them packed and taken to Project Harmony, where a stranger would usher them back into the building and I would crumple into the arms of dear friends. Friends who would pick me up, piece by piece, put me in their car and usher me into the safety of my home. A home with no children in it. A home that felt like the empty shell of what had been. The fires of combat waged all around me and these women stood as my guards, ready to fight on our behalf. And I knew. I had to fight too. Because there was no other option. Because our daughters needed us to advocate for them, to right the wrong, to win them back to their rightful owners. Because God said to engage in an all-out, life-or-death fight to the finish. I’m not a fighter by practice. I’ve never thrown a punch and it’s not looking like that’s going to happen in my future either. But what silences accusers, and defeats the enemies, is the one who dresses for the battle, throws up the shield and plants her foot firmly on solid, holy ground. And so this girl, the one who identified as more meek than bold, became the soldier her Father designed her to be. And the Promise Keeper delivered a victory for His oppressed children.

And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.
Ephesians 6:10-12 (MSG)

This summer, we packed again. All the same items, thrown into the same duffel bag. But this year, we took our little girl to a place of life and love and wholeness. We dropped her off at summer camp instead of foster care. By 5:11pm today, I will have collected her and that duffel bag from camp, and she’ll be safely tucked into my car, telling me all about her fun experience on our way to meet the family for dinner. And a part of my heart will heal a little more.

 

In His Redeeming Love,
Mande

Why we rejoiced in the pain of Foster Care.

Rejoice: a verb meaning ‘to feel or show that you are very happy about something’

When I was a little girl, the word ‘rejoice’ was not a part of my regular vernacular. In fact, the only place I remember hearing it was at Christmas time. Written on elegant cards, sung in songs and scrolled on seasonal décor, there was that word. Not raised in a practicing Christian home, I came to associate rejoicing with the holidays, with praying people, with church, with Jesus. A Jesus I hadn’t yet met.

Flashed forward a few decades and now a beloved daughter of the King, I use that word a lot more frequently than I did growing up. I still see it in abundance at Christmas time, delivering praises to the only One who is worthy of rejoicing in. But it falls out of my mouth at other times too. When I  look on my daughters with wonder and awe. When a new baby is born. When I see souls being saved and reborn. I sing it in songs throughout the year, not just during the holidays. Out it pops, as easily as ‘the’, ‘thanks’ and ‘quit bugging your sister’.

Recently I came across a verse that discusses the call for us to rejoice. Philippians 4:4 doesn’t mince words: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ Always. I’ll say it again. The act of rejoicing is a verb, so we’re required to engage in order to perform the action. It takes our emotional investment, our involvement to fulfill rejoicing. If we sit by passively as spectators, rejoicing will never happen. God asks for our participation because it tethers our heart to His, bonding us to Him in an intimate way that lasts through trial and triumph, laughter and tears. Much like the husband who loves his wife through a devastating illness, praising God always, even in the midst of storms, deepens the foundations of the relationship. 

But rejoicing is hard. The lies in our heads long to for us to believe that joy doesn’t follow sorrow, that we are victims, that our current circumstances are forevermore, that there’s no reason left to feel joyous. It’s no wonder that the Apostle Paul included in his writings to the people of Phillipi a stress on his words- I will say it again: Rejoice! A mortal man himself, Paul knew the fickle, weary nature of humankind. Prone to wander and easily distracted, we can step off track if we lack the focus and determination it takes to rejoice in an exasperated world. We have to decide to rejoice, to commit to it, to live in it.

Bathed in the humid heat of last summer, I walked through the devastation of having my daughters taken from their home and placed in foster care. It took 76 days for them to be returned to us, all accusations unfounded. As I moved through the motions of daily life, if for no reason other than sweet distraction, I longed for the simple, innocent days of my youth. The days when a future stretched out before me, free of court dates and supervised visits and children traumatized by the same system meant to protect them. Lie after lie tormented us, spewed forth from the mouth of the enemy, who ran hard after killing, stealing and destroying. But I knew what I knew what I knew. And it was this: that even when you walk through a valley where death is your shadow, GOD is near the brokenhearted. I gripped onto my Deliverer so hard that my knuckles turned white, and He held me close, washing over me with songs of adoration and I sang back. Night after night, I dreamed of a darkened room when He and I sat alone, me at His feet, weeping in despair, while He stroked my hair and whispered all the ways He loved me. With the world whirling all around me, I made a decision. I would rejoice in my Lord, now and always. Even if things got worse (and they did). Even if they never got better. Even if I had to make the same decision moment by moment, breath by breath, until it was the final decision I was privileged to make. I would choose Him. Always.

I didn’t know about rejoicing as a little girl. But as I grew up, first in years and then in stature to the fullness of Christ, I learned about the rejoicing that happens in the midst of tribulation. And I’m so glad I did.

Rejoicing,
Mande

Learning to swim.

 A few months ago, my daughter came to me with her heart set on something. This sweet child, the most outrageously generous of anyone I know, and who asks for very little, wanted to request a gift that only I could provide. A friend had invited my Natalee to join her at a Christian camp this summer. She wanted to go so badly. To be honest, I was pretty bewildered. Natalee is my little buddy and never far from my side. Since the day we brought her home, it’s been the two of us. She’s never slept over at a friend’s home or doesn’t usually opt to be away from us. I’m okay with this. I love having my girls close to home and I dread the thought of them leaving the proverbial nest. So the thought of Natalee being gone for several days was a shock to my system. And she was advocating for it, even more surprising.

But I couldn’t deny the excitement that lit her deep brown eyes up like twinkling Christmas lights, or her wide grin. This girl wanted to spread her wings, pack her bag and get out of Dodge. After all those years glued to my hip, my daughter wanted to taste a little independence and freedom. Who was I to tell her no? Plenty of kids went off to camps in the summer. And LOVED them. Surely she’d have a great time. Friends would be there, she would experience new things and meet new people, and hopefully get a deeper revelation of God during her time away. Plus, we’d get one on one time with Olivia. That’s a win-win for everyone. So I signed her up.

Almost as soon as I did, I had a sinking feeling. Camp usually involves lakes and pools and lazy rivers. Natalee was not a strong swimmer, not really a swimmer at all. How could I send my little girl off to a camp with the risk that she could be harmed in the water? But she wanted to go so badly, there was only one thing we could do. Swim classes.

A few weeks later, I found myself sitting on the floor by a large fan at the local YMCA. The humidity was stifling because of the pool and for some odd reason, they never have enough benches for all the parents. But at least the fan provided momentary sweet relief for the sweat gathering along my hair line. Natalee tentatively found her way to the edge of the pool and to her instructor, who was already in the water. She dangled her feet while waiting for the other students. Five other little ones showed up and they got to work. For forty minutes, the kids learned about bobbing, floating and popular swim strokes with creative names meant to delight children. We went back each Saturday and she improved. By the third lesson, I felt confident enough in her basic skills that she could be sent to camp without me standing over her the whole time or sitting out the swimming parts.

On the fifth lesson, I watched as she dunked her head beneath the surface, held her breath for several beats and then popped up again, breaking through the water to create a small splash. She smiled, pleased with herself and her newfound ability to acclimate. Over and over again. It made me think of those pictures you see of babies in water. Their natural reflexes cause their arms and legs to move, making it seem as though they can swim. They seem to love it, this time spent in the water. At some point, the reflexes wane and we have to relearn the movements to keep us afloat again. And this relearning is important. The Word calls us to have dominion over the Earth and everything in it, including the animals, land and sea. But water can be dangerous. It can easily consume us and take over. Learning to swim and being comfortable in water helps us survive. Getting our sea legs, or in this case, our ‘swim legs’, ensures that we won’t be overtaken.

Trusting in God is very similar. It can take a while to learn the skill of trusting in someone else, rather than yourself. When trials arrive on the scene, it comes naturally to many of us to clench tightly, especially if we don’t have any practice in relinquishing our challenges. But the more you practice, the more second nature it feels to hand it over. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life gasping for breath, trying to get to the surface. I know how vulnerable it feels to experience things far beyond your control. But I’ve learned to give my God space to move, to teach, to fix, to throw me a lifeline. To experience the water over your head and all around you, and still know that you’re Creator is preparing to breathe new life into you is a powerful and beautiful thing.

Isaiah 43:2 says ‘When you pass through the water, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ The waters will rise, that’s a certainty, according to God’s Word. The waters and rivers and fires will happen because of the brokenness we live in. But we are not meant to be overtaken. We can trust in the Creator of the land and sea, the moon and the stars, the rain and the sunshine. The God who invites the waters to cover over the land He created, and walks on them, will never let you drown. Like my sweet Natalee learning from instructors how to be empowered in the water, Father promises to teach us the necessary skill to float along the waves, by trusting in Him.

Getting my swim legs,
Mande