The Big Ugly I Tried to Hide

Two summers ago, we lost our daughters to foster care. We did. Man, that sure stings to write. I’ve written about our experience at length, and I’ve talked about it frequently and every time I have wondered if that sting will ever abate. It hasn’t yet.

There are occurrences in our days that take us by complete surprise. The things we never, ever saw coming. The loss of a parent in the tender stages of our childhood. Or the divorce that knocks the wind out of you. Finding out your spouse has lied to you repeatedly. The cancer diagnosis. The sudden death of your child. We never walk through life planning for the divorce…..or that death…..or betrayal. Those events just come along and leave you gasping for breath.

For us, it was foster care. You see, we don’t fit the profile. Kind of like the shooter who took out 58 precious lives and altered hundreds of others in Las Vegas. In that aftermath, we collectively searched high and low for the signs. The things that came before to warn us of the horror still to come. But after turning over the stones and looking in the corners, we haven’t found it yet. What chills us all to the bone is that he doesn’t seem to fit the profile. Profiles make us feel better, as though we can be on the lookout for tragedy or prevent nightmares. But those constructs are really more a false sense of security than anything else.

In the movies, children in foster care are malnourished, unkempt and kicked around. Their parents are absentee addicts. Their foster parents range from the larger-than-life hero to the follow-up abuser. The movie Annie comes to mind. It’s a hard knock life, after all.

My family doesn’t fit that profile. But the truth is that the families weaving their way through the social services system are just as varied as the people you’ll find in every corner of the globe. There are children who were raised in caring homes and find themselves fallen to rebellion or addiction or the wrong crowd or good old fashioned poor decisions. There are children who were born into the system, and others who were tortured before being rescued by a kind soul who blew the whistle on the neglect they suffered. There are parents who came from the system themselves. There are parents who were raised in mundane middle-class families and have never smoked a cigarette, let alone a joint. There are upper class parents, and parents who are educated. There are foster parents who adore the children in their care and treat them as if they were their own. There are foster parents who hit and rape and exploit. There are foster parents who are neither great nor horrid, sitting firmly in the center of disengaged and involved. The system is filled with social workers who toil endlessly and juggle case after case in a vain attempt to deliver all children to a loving family. There are social workers who checked out years ago. There are some who turn a blind eye when wrongdoing stares them dead in the face. The judges sitting in family court and the cops who act as first responders are just as colorful as the kids, the parents and the social workers. Foster care encompasses every race, religion, socioeconomic status and continent. Try as we might to find a profile that is one-size-fits-all, one simply doesn’t exist.

Still, I didn’t know all of this in June of 2015, when a set of tidy police officers knocked on our door.  While I drove down the street for questioning, I couldn’t shake that feeling of being in a dream. This couldn’t be happening. I was no criminal. Neither was my husband. Our daughters were the same ones we prayed for and received by way of a miracle, despite the biology that said otherwise. We worked hard every day in ordinary jobs, like construction and at our family church. We paid our bills and cleaned our house. We leaned toward ‘protective’ as a parenting style, and never let a day go by without telling our girls that we loved them. Hugs and laughter and singing abound in our home. We aren’t an image of perfection by any means, but still…….how could this be happening?

But it did. For 76 long days, our little girls lived away from us, in the homes of two different women we didn’t know. We experienced both ends of the spectrum, with one who was great and one who should never be a foster parent again. To say that we walked through each nightmarish day longing for our beloved children would be a massive understatement. There isn’t enough space here to express it with clarity. On day 76, after we had sat in family court hearings more times than I ever wished, and we paid hundreds for the hair follicle drug and alcohol tests, and thousands for the private lie detector test that vindicated us entirely, our daughters were released to us in the most ordinary of ways. A quick phone call from our lawyers and it was over.

By then, this ordeal was a big ugly beast in my life, looming large over all the positive elements I had worked to build. In my mind, it overshadowed the nights rocking our babies to sleep with whispered lullabies and sacrificing to pay for their private school education and the bear hugs given from sun up to sun down, day after day. It became a mark on my heart. It felt fruitless to try and convince people that our blip in foster care was not an expose on the state of our family.

One hot and humid day that summer, I found myself standing with my co-workers in a circle. After spending a month working from home, it was time for me to come back to the office. They promised to honor my need for privacy. They cared for our hearts and so much more. It was determined that, in order to lessen the peppering of questions from everyone, a good move would be to share briefly that our daughters were away from our care. Though my heart pounded and my palms filled with sweat at just the thought of such a revelation when it was all still so raw and fresh, I gave way to the urge to be rid of that big ugly. I knew I could fall and be caught by these dear friends. They knew us. I trusted them. My flesh wanted desperately to shield and hide, but my heart knew that revelation brings forth freedom. Standing there in the circle of my peers, I knew that secrecy couldn’t and shouldn’t happen. Everything in my makeup felt that no amount of me defending could ever sway a mind fixed on the lie that says ‘where there is smoke, there’s also fire’…..no matter how untrue that may have been. I would need to step into the flames by owning our story, accepting that this was a chapter in our family book and being completely, totally okay with how it read. So I took that breath I had been holding in for weeks on end as I trudged through the misery of torment, exhaled deeply and let it go. That big ugly floated out into the blinding brightness of freedom and has stayed there ever since. The King of Kings is in the business of taking the biggest, the ugliest, the hardest, the darkest and turning that mourning into JOY.

We ALL have a big ugly. No, no really. All of us. I know because humanity is messy. People are messy and life, while beautiful, will bring us to our knees at some point or another. Your big ugly might be a childhood filled with molestation or beatings. Or maybe, just maybe, you were the abuser. It might be that you grew up in poverty or committed a crime in your past. Maybe you walked away from an abusive marriage or have struggled with a child battling mental illness. It’s possible that you’re like us, still stinging from the knowledge that you once spent time in the social services system and faced down false accusation. No matter what your story, we all want to hold some big ugly in tight privacy. It’s the nature of the human condition to want to conceal.

But the feeling of freedom is so stunning, friends. It breathes life into your bones and restores what was broken. Fill your lungs, exhale deeply and let it go.

 

Hiding no more,
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

 

Pastures.

Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills. -Ezekiel 34:14 (NLT)

I live in Nebraska, where long stretches of open plains is the norm. If you have to drive to any other state or anywhere outside the Metro area, there’s a good chance that you’ll drive by a field of green. Actually, even inside the city limits, it’s not unusual to see a little pasture tucked away among the developments that pop up in suburbia. Needless to say, fields. Lots of fields.

Whenever I pass by one that includes livestock, there is something that always strikes me as strangely funny. First, it’s curious how the weather never seems to bother the animals. Have you ever noticed that? It can be way below freezing or sweltering, and there stand the horses and cows, just as they always have. Tails swaying, stationery, not too distressed about what’s happening with the weather. I can’t stand the hot, humid summers of the Midwest. For this girl, who was born with a head of wavy hair, the humidity is like a death sentence for any amount of time I spend trying to style my mane. I’ve tried every product, every technique. In the end, I resort to a ponytail for the work-week, and a ball cap at all other times in the summer. There are no other options. Still, I love the fall and spring seasons that come with living in the center of the US, so I take the good with the bad. But those horses and cows never seem to mind. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

The other thing I always notice is that those cows never stop grazing. Ever. Have you ever seen a cow who isn’t eating?? Now the horses are a more varied animal. Sometimes they’re standing, sometimes they’re casually plodding along, sometimes they are galloping around. But cows, they eat and sleep. Though I don’t witness the sleeping very often. It’s mostly eating. All. The. Time. Heads down, snouts nestled into the dusty earth, munching away at whatever they happen to find as they snack their way through the day. All this eating serves people well, for our purposes. Omaha is known for good steak, after all.

My sweet friend, April, and I were musing about this recently. About these cows who can’t stop eating long enough to lift their heads. And then it hit both of us at the exact same time—there’s a word to share, a devotional in that somewhere. I love how Father does that, falls onto pairs of people at the same time with His wisdom. The synergy is all kinds of invigorating and fabulous.

The Word of God says to feed on good things. 1 Corinthians 10:3 talks about eating spiritual food, and 1 Peter 2:2 compares the Word to the unquestionably nourishing and wholly perfect milk that newborns eat. Hebrews 5 says that the Word can be more like solid food for mature followers to sink their teeth into. Revelations 2:7 grants us food from the Tree of Life. If we ate junk all the time and never fostered our bodies with vitamins and minerals, we’d be messes. Riddled with disease and oppressed by fatigue, it wouldn’t feel much like living at all. Father’s master design was that we would feast on the rich and altogether perfect foods found in other parts of His creation. And any simple Google search will list for you the many ways each individual element helps to keep the body running like a fine-tuned machine. The lack of these would mean an early death to us. But our spirits need to eat too. And just like those trees filled with tasty fruit, made to care for the newly crafted bodies of Adam and Eve, God also designed His word to be exactly what we need to stay emotionally and spiritually healthy.

My Father also reminds us to keep our eyes lifted to the Heavens. And the reason is simple. It’s really hard to see anything else but the ground when you’re looking down. When we lift our gazes, we can see what’s right in front of us and follow a clear path, keep our balance, avoid falls. We’re also gifted with peripheral vision, so that those who would attempt to sneak up on us are thwarted. (I’m looking at you, enemy. He’s a creep.) And when we tilt our heads back and look upward, we can see FAR. The average human eye can plainly see the very distant Saturn in the solar system, which sits 1.5 billion km away from Earth. Think on that for a minute, folks.

Grass on the ground is good for cows. They were made to eat at a constant pace and they do it well. But looking down and feeding on junk won’t work for the sons and daughters of the King. We need more and thankfully, the King of all Kings has provided it. Our good Shepherd calls us in from the fields and prepares a place for us as His table with plentiful food. Today, I encourage you to do this: Look up, breathe in deep and eat your fill from the goodness of Him.

Looking upward,
Mande