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

I Don’t Always Want to Obey God.

I love craft fairs. So much. So, SO much. My hands can do a whole gaggle of things, but what they can’t do is put together barn wood, paint, and burlap to creatively innovate something people want to pay money for. Others do the creating and I do the buying. It’s a beautiful partnership.

Three years ago, I found myself at my daughter’s volleyball game, sitting beside two mothers. We’d known each other for years, since our daughters had tentatively walked into the same kindergarten classroom and formed a friendship. Over school events and birthday parties, I formed a friendship with these two ladies too, one borne from both proximity and affection. Volleyball games were some of our most treasured times of the school year. Since volleyball season began as autumn was tip-toeing into the air and Husker football was kicking off, we’d throw on red, bulky sweatshirts and stumble into the gym with large coffees to cradle our sleepiness in the chill of those early Saturday mornings. We’d plop onto chairs, side by side, and shout affirmations at our daughters as the games played on, while also discussing life – our other children, our jobs and our dreams. After the games concluded, these ladies and I would load kids in our cars and spill into a restaurant for brunch. Over pancakes and omelets and more coffee, conversation would continue. It wasn’t a perfect union. We didn’t always agree. Sometimes we’d say or do something that offended another. After the volleyball season concluded, we could end up with a snap of silence that lasted a long time before communication was established again. But it always happened that volleyball would come back around and we’d find ourselves seated next to one another. So that day, three years ago, cushioned in between the whistle blows from the referee and our frequent clapping, one of us – I’m unsure who – wondered aloud why the school had never hosted a craft fair. Since I held a delight for craft fairs in general and liked the chance to hang with these ladies more, it seemed like a fabulous idea. And a new event was born.

At the time, I had just crawled my way out of utter despair. Still covered in the soot and rubble from the life that had come crashing to my family’s feet in the wake of a nightmare, we were in the midst of rebuilding, brick by brick, when volleyball season rolled around again. I was grateful for the routine. Thankful for the welcome of familiar faces. The devastation we had walked through left me shaky and on edge, wondering if it’s presence in the book of my life would derail the ministry work I did, or leave a stain on our lives, one we could never overcome. I’m a recovering people pleaser. I’ve spent more of my years than not performing for the audience in a shallow attempt to receive the applause. Somewhere along the way I had picked up that the shouts of glory and ‘Bravo!’ meant that I was proven. It was validation in the same sense that a snort of cocaine is just a momentary hit; it never lasts long before another is needed to satisfy.  The enemy baits some people to stumble through addiction or adultery; his target with me has always been approval. A deep down part of me, the one who always wanted that approval and needed inclusion, longed to be reaffirmed in the aftermath of that summer struggle in 2015.

That I was okay.

That I would rally.

That I would be restored completely.

I didn’t see it then, but now I know how the subconscious part of me locked onto that craft fair idea with ferocity. I knew immediately it would be a hit. And I knew that a successful craft fair for the school also meant a stamp of approval for me. So I pushed aside the voice I heard whispering to me and forged ahead. As we planned away, my Father in Heaven asked me to step aside from the event, knowing full well that I was about to hit a wall. That the heavy weight of healing would cause my shoulders to sag and my knees to buckle. He tried in vain to clear my plate as I kept piling it higher and higher. He gave me clear direction to scale back when I whined about my weariness from all the things. When I outright complained, my good Father tried to redirect my path time and time again. During those same months, He also made major progress in other areas. He kept chipping away at the broken parts and sculpted them into something beautiful. My need to please became less and less. My voice became more confident and sure when I saw clearly who I am in the arms of the King of Kings. My eyes squinted through the fog to see the ministry He laid out before me, sharpening my calling. My giftings became more pure and refined. My stance became more upright when I understood I could stand in the face of spiritual attack, even the worst possible kind, meant to obliterate. My ears started to hear His voice distinctly and we spoke in a language meant just for me and Him. It all happened in the midst of my disobedience. He does that all the time. Raises us up and makes us better, even as we behave in ways that undermine His efforts. He’s so good, y’all.

Every time I met with the craft fair committee (that’s a fancy schmancy word for me and these two friends), I felt a check in my spirit. I’d sit in the chair and squirm, knowing I wasn’t welcome there. It wasn’t my friends that were being inhospitable. They welcomed me warmly, complimenting my efforts to advertise on the radio or secure vendors. No, I wasn’t welcome because the disobedience was thick, flying directly in the face of what Father had asked of me. He had already laid out a ministry path for me to follow. He rolled out the red carpet and told me to walk forth. But I wanted to stop along the way, deviating to do this or that, stepping off the carpet for a moment or two as the attraction of something new and flashy caught my eye. All this goodness waited at the end for me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off my want.

How could He really want me to pass up something that I enjoyed so much, something so good, something that was about to raise a whole mass of money for my daughter’s small private school?? But friends, my God asks us to give up good stuff all the time. He asked Abraham to sacrifice his promised son, Isaac. He asked Mary to release her beloved son, the one who’s surprise appearance in her womb nearly cost her a husband and her dignity, to the whole world. He asked that same Son to give up His life to save the world from themselves. And they all said yes to God’s requests. The yes, the obedience is what led to the blessings that came afterward. Can you imagine what our lives would look like if we traded all our no’s for a yes that was immediate and perpetual?

That little craft fair idea went on to be a smashing success. We raised dollars by the thousands for the band program, and brought people into the church building by the hundreds. It convinced me that I had surely heard the Lord wrong. So I signed on for another year and that check in my spirit came floating up in me again. Another year, same scenario and still I forged ahead out of my own faulty strength. Can you believe that? I heard clear as day from my Father in Heaven, the creator of all who saw fit to bend down and speak to me, and I ignored it completely. For two years. Told Him no. Stomped my feet and plugged my ears while I shook my head to drown out the words. I wanted what I wanted, even if it blocked my need. Our bodies can grow older, but sometimes our minds can stay stuck at seven years old, friends.

The second craft fair was just as successful as the first. More so, actually. I praise God for that, because He granted favor to something I put my hands on, despite His instruction to take myself elsewhere. But my heart was folding under the boulder of my disobedience. And because my God knows me completely, inside and out, He decided to speak to me in the only way I could hear it.

 

‘Honey, you can’t do this anymore. And let me tell you why. Because it’s not for you. I’ve already appointed and anointed others to care for it. If you keep butting in, they can’t receive what I have for them, my love. Ask me what I want you to do and I’ll tell you.’

 

So I did. Through tears and a deep sadness, I asked my Father what I should do and He told me. To resign my role, to have a discussion with the committee, to follow Him. And after I did, the relief that washed over me was sweet and tender. I could feel His delight in my obedience to His will and out the carpet rolled again, beckoning me forward.

In the book of Luke, it’s said we are blessed when we hear the word of God and obey it. It’s that the most beautiful transaction? ‘Hear me, child….and then just do. I’ll take care of the rest.’ When we strip away all the grime and filth from the world we live in, the world that dunks us in lie after lie until we’re gasping for air and it’s hard to see truth, what we’re left with is a gorgeous simplicity that is rooted in love. It’s not chaotic or confusing or tricky. It’s purposeful and caring. It’s the heart of a good father. When I finally took my hands away from my ears and did as He asked, another part of my tarnished heart obtained freedom. I won’t receive that applause this year and that’s okay. I’ll be clapping for my friends instead, just as it should be. My Father will smile with such pride at His little girl, whom He loves so.

God asks us to do hard things. All the time.  Sometimes, the ask is really, really hard, far more than what a craft fair can amount to. But His promise still stands, the one that says He uses all things for our good, and to give us a future, to give us a hope.

The hard ask can be sweet too, friends.

Obeying,
Mande

My Lawyer Was Wrong

The leather was cool on my back as I sat in the chair across from him. My lawyer was talking about the case the State of Nebraska was attempting to build against us and as he spoke, I could feel the chill of broken-in leather behind me. In the movies, these scenes are portrayed by zooming in on the speakers lips, and deafening every other sound so that it creates a vacuum where only the words can be heard. In slow-mo. Turns out, it happens that way in real life too.

“In two years’ time, it will be like this never happened. You guys will be fine.” He said.

Two years????? How can he act like two years is so little? My mind raced to comprehend how my family, the one I gripped until my knuckles turned white because I had no expectation of ever receiving such a beautiful gift and certainly didn’t plan to let it go without a fight, could survive the shattering effects of two years’ worth of foster care and the broken court system. He elaborated that a court case could take up to a year. But maybe two years for all the exhausting family court hearings to end. TWO. YEARS. We were just two weeks into the process and every single second felt like agony. The days that used to fly by so quickly, propelled by the busyness of life, now dragged as if held down by heavy boulders. I tried to push them with all my might in the hopes that moving the weight would bring my daughters home faster, but it was to no avail.

In those moments, the life-defining moments that assault your senses and sear into your mind, I had the gift of hyper-awareness for the oddest things. The overhead lights, buzzing like fluorescent lights do. The stacks of white paper near his desk. The frame holding a photo of his sweet grandson on the corner of his stately desk. The smell of the building, layered in years of life and people and activity, stationed in the center of downtown Omaha bustle. And that leather chair molding around my body. My lawyers words echoed in my ears and wrote themselves on the files of my memory. I’m certain God designs us this way. With focus that becomes laser sharp when under duress so that the heavy devastation can be compartmentalized elsewhere in our consciousness. The same way we redirect toddlers away from the candy they have their eyes on, in the hopes of avoiding a melt-down, Father kindly redirects His children on the brink of despair to the most simple of activities.

‘Look at the picture, sweet daughter. Listen to the hum of the air conditioner. Watch the bird sitting on the window ledge. I’ll carry this, I’m strong enough. Just stay with Me.’


This relief from thinking or doing or feeling too much, existing in the barest of minimums and casting everything else aside, is a gift.

Our lawyer had been around the block a few thousand times. He sat there, an L-shaped desk between us,  carrying 50 years worth of law experience. Fifty years. He had spent more time in a court room than I had been alive and he had seen it all. This man had won far more than he had lost. He was full of contrasts. Like steel when it came to the woes of weaving through a legal system so tattered it barely felt viable to even try. He acknowledged how tainted the system was, this profession he knew like the back of his hand, but insisted it was the best one on the planet. When talking of his beloved family, he softened considerably. Family mattered to him. Probably because he witnessed so many torn apart. He was all business, while still being incredibly charming and relational. We still communicate with him occasionally. It’s the oddest relationship, that of a client and legal representative. For a time they are your best friends and biggest defenders, with no prior knowledge of the life you’ve lived before walking into their office. And then just like that, the relationship is no longer needed in its current state. A judge makes a decision, resolution is reached and it’s all over, for better or worse. You talk to them every day, multiple times a day, and then all that’s left is silence.

But he felt certain of our future success. And that our family would remain whole. That we’d continue on with life as if this wretched blip in time was nonexistent.

He was wrong. There were many days following the victory God handed us that felt like a continuation of the torture. Days when we wept with devastation at what we had walked through. Days when we had to stare into the eyes of the daughter who had used words to betray the family that adored her and say ‘No matter what, we love you.’ Nights spent in bed with my back faced towards James because we disagreed on how to put one foot in front of the other, to move forward. Sundays spent in church, sitting just rows away from the families who had become entangled in that wreck of an experience, the very sight of them invoking a crazy mess of emotions. Week after week and month after month of walking through daily life as if everything was okay when it really wasn’t. The longing to make it all go away and return to normal was so strong, but so impossible to attain. There was no denying that we had to heal and it was going to be painful. The only way you can talk yourself into trudging through the heat of fire is by knowing God will go with you. And He did. He really, really did.

So, it wasn’t as if this had never happened. Not by a long shot. June 15th will mark two years and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t remember a moment or flash to an experience from those 76 days.

But our lawyer was also right.

We have remained whole. Despite every rational mindset, the lowest of lows was not enough to destroy, as the enemy had planned. We have succeeded. God has gathered the ashes and sculpted the most stunning of views. Though that time in our family’s story still holds a strong presence in my mind, the things I think about are changing all the time. God mingles a picture of the courtroom with the smell from the rose bushes at Lauritzen Gardens, where I met my daughters once for a supervised visit. He reminds me of long, snuggly hugs with Natalee at Red Robin the very first time I sat at a table with my children and a woman I didn’t know as she observed our interactions and typed on a laptop…..and I smile through tears at the memory. Bad with the good, melancholy with jubilance. My God is trying to help me see the overwhelming exquisite that sits right next to the ugly. One day it might be possible that I see the exquisite of that summer far more often than I see the ugly, if His grace allows it.

 ~~~

Olivia and I just returned from Costa Rica, where God redeemed one of the dreams we lost that heartbreaking summer. My Father did a great work there. He healed the wounds that still had a bit of scabbing over to go. On that 7 acres of tropical land, filled with sweet children who lack families, He flipped my perspective completely. In 2015, when my daughter and I were supposed to head to Costa Rica with a team and serve children in foster care, in a cruel irony, Olivia became a child in foster care. But nestled in the sticky heat and shades of deep green and torrential downpours of rain, was a trade hidden and just waiting to be revealed. God took that ironic twist and didn’t just fulfill a dream. He upgraded it. My daughter, the one God gave me as a surprise, went from being a girl called to caring for foster children….. to being a fostered child herself…. to fulfilling the dream to help with the temporary keeping of children in foster care after all. She fostered God’s love with her focused smiles and gentle touches and tender words, with fiery prayers and a decidedly maternal spirit. She kissed chubby cheeks and induced the belly laughs of little ones still in the wait for their moms and dads. And she could relate to them in a way that many can’t. My daughter knows what they feel in a real, aching way. But she put on a wardrobe of hope and poured out all she had taken in during those 76 days of foster care limbo. And Father took the rubble of my shattered dream, chiseling away to create a lovely team that He asked me to lead. In the Kingdom, the lost become leaders, y’all. With opened palms, that same God who saved me nearly two decades ago handed me the gift of understanding when I glanced across the covered structure where children played in the afternoons. I looked around and saw all the people He had appointed to my team and the way He had pieced them together. Sitting among them was my girl, strengthened by trial but softened by agape love, rocking a baby boy as she tried in vain to keep the heat from engulfing her in perspiration. There she sat with a whole new dream, one she never saw coming, one that couldn’t have been revealed in 2015. In those seven days in Costa Rica, God called out worship pastors and foster parents and prophets. And I got to witness it all. That stunning view wrapped my heart in warmth and pulled scales from my eyes to see things in a whole new way. He gave me the reasons why I can count it all joy. Every single part CAN be joy.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.                      ~James 1:2-4 ESV

My lawyer was wrong. The days of that ugly summer haven’t faded off into the sunset as though they’ve never happened at all. They inflicted scars that are felt in real-time, despite the passing years. And yet.

My God knew all along. That the pain He allowed would come and go, and be raised up into greatness. We trusted Him to exchange our despair for cheer, and He’s been faithful to do it. The heart that once gasped for life gave way to bursting, with crystal clear understanding, and then reveled in joy. That’s what my God does. He makes it all count as joy, every time.

Count the joy, friends-
Mande

Crafted with Care.

sam

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Jeremiah 29:11

I had the honor of guest posting on the Lifegate Women’s blog again this week. Please click here to check it out! Or click here for their Facebook page, where you’ll find lots of amazing posts from a variety of talented ladies!

Be blessed friends,
Mande

Jesus Take The Wheel

Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him.
 – Acts 17:27 (MSG)

I had the privilege of guest posting on the Lifegate Women’s blog today! Pop over to there to check it out. Or click here for their Facebook page to view it. There’s a bunch of amazing ladies writing about revelations from the Lord, just waiting to share with you.

Letting Jesus drive,
Mande