Foster Care is Messy

How He Loves is one of my favorite worship songs. I love the imagery of “Love’s like a hurricane I am a tree” and “If His grace is an ocean we’re all sinking.” God’s love is an overpowering love. His grace is an all-consuming grace. But often times, especially in foster care, that grace and love manifest themselves in pretty messy ways. John Mark McMillan, writer of the song, says this about it’s most controversial lyric:

HEAVEN meets EARTH like a sloppy wet kiss

The idea behind the lyric is that the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth converge in a way that is both beautiful and awkwardly messy. Think about the birth of a child, or even the death of Jesus himself. These miracles are both incredibly beautiful and incredibly sloppy (“gory” may be more realistic, but “Heaven meets earth like a gory mess” didn’t seem to have the same ring). Why does the church have such a problem with things being sloppy? Do we really think we’re fooling anyone on Sunday morning, especially God? Are we going to offend him? I mean, he’s seen us naked in the shower all week and knows our worst thoughts, and still thinks we’re awesome. What if we took all the energy we spent faking and used that energy to enjoy the Lord instead? That could be revolutionary!

Foster care is messy. It’s a hand and feet, in the trenches ministry that looks sin and brokenness in the face and stands tall with the confidence that If God is for us,who can be against us? (Romans 8:31b). The foster care system is a mess. Working with kids from hard places can be a mess (literally and figuratively. This picture was taken after a 3 year old got so mad playing with moon sand that he took all his clothes off, underwear included) Foster care is hard and frustrating and messy, but through it all, God is present and working miracles in the lives of our children.

As messy as it is, and as dramatic as that last paragraph was, foster care really is a beautiful mess. It’s also a pretty fun one. Jon Acuff said “Messy is a lot more fun than perfect.” It’s such a privilege to provide a secure and loving family for a boy or girl who has spent their childhood  living in uncertainty and fear. We have so much fun with our boys, especially when it’s messy, and it’s always amazing to see a group of strangers turn into a big (mostly) happy family, if only for a short time. The opportunity to serve kids in foster care has changed our lives for the better, and it will be forever changed. Once you enter the messy world of hurting and needy children, It’s impossible for things to remain the same.

We see and hear an unfortunate amount of stories about how children are mistreated, neglected, and abused. These little kids have experienced lifetimes of traumas that would give adults nightmares. It’s our job to find the beauty in the mess. To show them God in the middle of the darkness and teach them that in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37 emphasis added) 

Our kids come with baggage from past hurts and experiences that is incredibly complicated, but the changes that we see in kids over days, weeks, and months of showing them consistent love and support is remarkable, and there’s only one answer for it. We like to think that it’s our systems and our love, but in reality it’s much more like the song. Heaven is meeting earth like a sloppy wet kiss. Except in our case it’s more like a 2 year old eating spaghetti or multiple conversations about why flushing the toilet is important. Messy and dirty and sometimes pretty gross, but beautiful and redeemed.

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First Birthday!

Our little blog is turning 1! Heidi made the first post one year ago and we could not be happier with the response we have gotten from friends, family, and colleagues. A lot has happened in this past year, and blogging has helped us share our joy, our struggles, our challenges, and our ever changing family with you guys. “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” (Swedish Proverb) It has helped us cope with losses and it has helped us become better foster parents. I have been able to think through a lot of things and figure stuff out while writing that I probably wouldn’t have figured out on my own.

Some fun facts about our first year: We published 26 blog posts (27 counting this one) that were read 2,869 times by 1,934 people. Our blog has been viewed by people in 14 countries. The most popular post has been Uncomfortable, followed closely by Loving When It Hurts. Since we started this blog we have had about 35 kids come through Bryan Mac. Heidi and I had the chance to attend a great orphan care conference that continues to stick with us and inspire new ideas and ventures. We’ve started the process of obtaining our foster care/adoption license, and have moved from an apartment into a house closer to campus.

To celebrate our first year, we’re changing up the look of the blog. New year, new look. New look, same great blog. Heidi and I are so glad that you have enjoyed hearing from us, and we are excited to see what will happen in the coming year. Feel free to let us know if there is anything about our lives or jobs that you’d like to read more about. We’d love to hear from you!

Uncomfortable

We know that saying goodbye to kids we have loved is a part of the job. We know that sometimes we only have a few hours notice when a kid is leaving. We also know that when kids go home, there is often a great deal of uncertainty about the situation they are returning to. But simply knowing those things isn’t enough. Knowing you’re a part of a broken system doesn’t make it easier when the system fails. Yesterday was an uncomfortable day. We got about 2 hours notice that a boy we love very much was being returned to an uncertain situation with his mother. We were blindsided by a perfect storm of the foster care system. 2 weeks ago we were told that his mother was working on a treatment plan, but DSS (Department of Social Services) was likely going to recommend termination of rights. Thursday we were told that the judge did not listen to DSS recommendations, and did not see enough evidence to keep the child in the foster care system. They outlined a transition plan that would have him moving home for good around Christmas. Yesterday the judge decided to change their mind, and ordered that the child be returned to his mother later that day. Caseworkers were surprised, supervisors were surprised, and we were obviously floored by the news. So we left the training we were at, picked him up from school, and explained to him and his teacher what the new plan was. Everyone cried. Then we came home and I helped him pack his clothes while Heidi collected paperwork and toys that were scattered around the house. We got some pictures and lots of hugs. Our teammates came over to say their goodbyes. Then the transporter showed up, we loaded all of his things into the van, and then it was goodbye. Hopefully not forever, but now there’s an empty bed at our house and an empty seat at the table. While I was doing bedtime with our other kids, I called 2 of them by his name. I’m going to miss him.

Our job is often uncomfortable. Kids are uncomfortable when they first meet us because they are unsure who we are and where they are. We hear a lot of uncomfortable stories from kids about past traumas and current issues. We have to answer a lot of uncomfortable questions, and tell kids a lot of uncomfortable news. Family Teaching, and foster care and adoption in general, are inherently uncomfortable things. Children are removed from the only comfort they have ever known, if they’ve ever been comfortable, and are placed with you. Too many times they find real comfort with you in your house just to be moved to a different house or reunited with family and their concept of comfort shifts again.

Uncomfortable, as unpleasant and painful as it can be, isn’t always bad. If you are uncomfortable, that means you are aware that things are not as they should be. Feeling uncomfortable means you want something to change. The reason we became Family Teachers, the reason we are passionate about foster care, adoption, and orphan care is that the thought of children who aren’t being provided for made us uncomfortable. Just because we responded to that uncomfortable feeling doesn’t mean it went away though, if anything it made it worse. Every child that we interact with has an uncomfortable past, so we are surrounded by it and immersed in it. But the more we learn, the more uncomfortable we get, which makes us want to work harder to change whatever we can.

Even though it seems counterintuitive to do something that makes you more uncomfortable, we wouldn’t have it any other way. We don’t enjoy hearing the stories and answering the questions, but we do it because we can. I know that not everybody can do our job. You need to be a special kind of person to work with the kids that we work with. Heidi and I feel like we have been blessed with the empathy and energy that it takes to work directly with kids, and we are part of a community of like minded people at Thornwell that do incredible work every day in the face of a mountain of uncomfortability (I don’t think that’s a word). We do it because we can, and we do it because we have access to the ultimate comfort.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.[a] If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-6 ESV)

What makes you uncomfortable? It’s not the same for everyone, but everyone has something. We were at an orphan care conference last weekend, and one of the speakers pointed out that every Christian is called to do something. If you follow Christ, you have a duty to better the kingdom in some way. Is the kingdom better because you’re a part of it? Orphan care, foster care, and adoption are close to our hearts, but for you it could be something different. Figure out what that is and do something about it.

Never say no to your kids

Obviously you need to say no to your kids. Multiple times a day. “Can I have ice cream for breakfast?” “Is it ok if I get chocolate on the DVD player?” “Can I lick the dog?” No, no, and no. There are plenty of times when kids need to hear no. So my title is a lie. You should definitely say no to your kids. It helps them set healthy boundaries, lets them know what is right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, appropriate and inappropriate. But maybe there are times when you should not say no to your kids. A better title probably would’ve been ‘Why you shouldn’t say no to your kids as often’, but that wouldn’t have been as dramatic. I was participating in a men’s bible study on marriage this spring, and I received some of the best parenting advice I’ve ever heard. The advice: “don’t say no to your kids.” Confused yet? Parenting is confusing. At least in my (limited) experience, it is.

What that advice means, is if your child asks you to do something with them, don’t say no. If a kid wants to spend time with you, you should always say yes to them. Kids know what they want, and they usually aren’t shy about expressing it. I’m hungry, I want to leave, I have to poop, etc. And usually when they ask, they mean it. So if they say that they want to spend time with you, they probably mean it. They truly want to spend time with you. We could talk about quality vs quantity time, but what I believe is, quality time happens within quantity time. You can try and plan quality time through special activities, but usually the quality moments happen during unplanned time together. Swinging on the swings, playing catch, going for a walk, even something as simple as eating a meal together can turn into the moments that kids remember most.

Jan and Mark Foreman, parents of 2 members of the band Switchfoot, recently wrote a book entitled Never say No: Raising Big Picture Kids. Admittedly, I’ve only read the introduction and a devotional consisting of short passages from the book. Either way, sofar it’s fantastic, and I plan on reading the whole thing. In the introduction, they share how they describe this concept to other curious parents.

“Never say no to all the dreams and creative ideas your children have. Never say no to the realization you can become different than your mom and dad. Especially never say no to your kids’ requests to join them, like playing dress up or going surfing with your teenager when the weather’s cold and windy. If you say no too often, they’ll stop asking.”

Another quote that I love from the book is “A thousand no’s can be dwarfed by the power of one yes.” It’s amazing to see the look on a child’s when we say yes to something that’s always been no. Some of our kids have never heard yes when they’ve asked a question. Whether it was from parents, relatives, or caseworkers, the answer has always been no. They’ve never had a chance to get what they want or to think creatively. They’ve been told what to eat, what to do, where to live, who to live with or simply given no attention at all. Whether it’s a second bowl of cereal at breakfast, or another blanket on their bed because they’re cold, a simple yes can work wonders in developing a relationship with a kid. Especially in our cottage, forming relationships is a difficult but vital part of our job. I’ve found that if you can make a kid laugh, it will be easier for them to trust you. When they trust you, they listen to you. Not to say all defiance is distrust, but for us that is often the case. To a certain extent, they need to know you’ll say yes to some things before they accept you saying no to another.

For me this is really easy to connect this concept to our relationship with our Heavenly Father, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this part. 2 Corinthians 1:19-20 says

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me [Paul] and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

He always has been and He always will be. He says many times that he wants to hear from us and He is always available for us. Of course sometimes He says no to us when we make requests, but whenever we want to spend time with Him, the answer is always yes.

I write this somewhat hypocritically. It sounds great and makes perfect sense, but this is something that I’m not good at. I’m trying, but it’s really hard to push 4 kids on the swings at the same time when it’s 90 degrees outside. I know I need to do better, and I have seen results when I say yes to our kids, however reluctant that yes is. But it’s still tough.

Motherhood 

Everyday I feel like I sing the words of David Crowder’s song ‘Here’s my Heart’. (If you don’t know it, look it up.)  But all you need to know is this part: ‘Here’s my heart, Lord/Speak what is true’. 

This is why: 

Because every day I am confident that I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. Because every moment I say ‘This. This, Lord, is my heart. This house. This ministry. These little faces. This is where my heart is.’ My heart is daily laid out for all to see. Those children. That’s my heart. Their memories, their spiritual life, their development, their happiness, their sadness, their health, their grades, their hygiene, their entertainment, their tantrums, their hugs and kisses. It is so evident to me that children, specifically our children, are simply people passing through that I have the honor of raising for the time being. Their life is my life. So, everything I do in Bryan Mac cottage, I say with my actions and in my mind, ‘Here’s my heart, Lord’.

. . .And ‘speak what is true’? That’s the redeeming part! I can present my heart, life, desires, and children to the Lord everyday. But I cannot speak Truth without Him. There’s not much more I desire for our kids than to speak Truth into their lives, for them to see the one and only Truth, for them to experience and believe it, for His Truth to combat every lie they believe. Everything I do as a mother for our kids must be inundated  with His Truth. From waking them up in the morning to doing bed checks after they’ve all fallen asleep, I must use every moment to speak God’s Truth into their lives. It is the only thing that can change their anxiety, cause them to see their true identity, shift their view of the past and the future. God’s voice of Truth is what changes our children’s fear, distrust, self esteem, confusion, everything! They need His Truth to fill their little lives in order to move forward, and they don’t even know it. That’s why it’s my job to speak it and to live it. His Truth. 

There are rarely moments when I don’t see the privilege it is to be a mom to this house of boys. Like every other parent, some moments make it easier than others. When your kids are being sweet or following instructions or wanting to be close, it’s in the moments that make you proud that you think about how honored you feel to parent your children. And then there’s the struggles – the timeouts, their yelling, when they lock your keys in the car, the poop in the tub, the bad conference reports, the lack of sleep. The elements of parenthood that make it challenging and test your patience, even in those circumstances, I can see clearly the trauma and hurts that cause them. Those trying times cause me to see the world from their point of view, and it leaves me feeling privileged in a different way. Those memories they hold, the hell they’ve lived in, the past they need to forget, they entrust to me. Sometimes it’s through words and other times through their actions. No adult may have ever cared for their feelings or opinions or even just cared at all for that child. But they feel safe enough to misbehave because they know I won’t beat them or they know I’ll be a voice for them about the abuse they’ve held in for a long time. It is a privilege to be their voice, to be trusted with their past, to be influential in their steps to freedom, to speak Truth into their lives. 

That’s what motherhood is to me. Having the honor of raising anxious, loving, hurting, most times chaotic children. Making sure, that no matter what, every boy I tuck into bed knows that they are safe, loved, and will be forever cared for when Momma Heidi is with them. 

It’s interesting to see the connection the boys make with feeling safe. I always say they should call me Ms Heidi, and most do. But many times after I’ve done a bed time or 2 with them, and I give them the speech I give every night, something like ‘You’re safe here. I love you. I’m sorry you have to be here, but I’m so glad I met you. I will never hurt you. Jesus loves you so I love you’. It only takes once or twice and our little ones will ask ‘so you’re my mom? I’m gonna call you Mom’. Even with their 4 year old minds they know how they should feel when a Mom is being a Mom. 

It’s not a self-made title, but I’ll take it anyday of the week: Momma Heidi. It helps me know that I’m completing the overwhelming, but wonderful task of motherhood.