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.

Foster Care is hard

For my Family Teacher colleagues and anyone else involved in the foster care world, that title is an understatement. Especially today, especially in our cottage. There are many parts of foster care that could win the title of worst part, but saying goodbye is very near the top of the list. Often when we are talking to people about our jobs we hear things like “I could never do what you do. I would get too attached. It would be too hard to say goodbye.” Guess what folks, we get attached to the kids in our care. I don’t think it’s possible to become ‘too attached’ but if it is, we get too attached. It’s hard to say goodbye. Really hard. Too hard sometimes. But we do it.

Foster care is such a bittersweet ministry. Ideally, foster care would never be needed. In a perfect world, all children would be able to experience a safe, consistent, unconditionally loving family. Kids should always have adequate food, water, and shelter. They deserve the opportunity to get an education and have access to appropriate entertainment and recreation. Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. Children experience things they never should, and need systems and people in place to provide what they need when their family can’t or won’t. We love being those people and we are happy to be part of that system. It doesn’t mean we are glad when a child is abused or neglected, but we are glad to be there when they are. I would tell patients on the ambulance that I’m not happy that they got sick or injured, but I’m happy I could be the one to help them. I tell kids the same thing. I’m not happy that you got taken away from your family, but I’m happy that you are here with us now.

Foster care is hard. All Heidi and I know is foster care in a group setting. I’m sure there are a lot of differences between what we do and private foster families, but there’s also many commonalities. We take care of good kids going through really hard stuff. In our house, we have of 8 kids going through 8 different traumas. That means 8 different reactions and opinions, 8 different parenting styles and attachments. It’s hard to manage. Each child is so different and it requires so much time and energy to develop and maintain positive relationships with each of them. We’re lucky to have 24/7 support if needed and scheduled time off, which is something foster families don’t always get. That has to be hard. Foster care is exhausting.

Saying goodbye is the worst. Especially when you’re ‘too attached’ to them. Especially when you’re not sure what they’re going back to. When people say “It would be too hard for me to say goodbye to them” they imply that it’s easy for us. Nope. Not even close. We had to say goodbye today to a boy who cried inconsolably when he first moved in with us because he wanted so badly to go home. Last night when he was told that he was going home he cried because he didn’t want to leave all of his friends. To quote our teammate who was charged with telling him the plan: “What do you say to a little guy being discharged tomorrow who is crying in his bed because he may never see everyone here again?” There’s no good answer. You tell him how much you love him and that you won’t stop loving him even after he’s gone. You fake excitement that he’s being reunited with his family, even when you’re screaming on the inside because you know it’s a bad idea. You sit and cry with him, telling him how thankful you are for your time together and for the impact he’s had on your life. You pray with him and ask God to protect him and for him to feel God’s love. You give him your contact information and tell him to call you whenever he needs something. You don’t know what to say or what to think. You want to be optimistic and hope that everything works out for the family. Sometimes though, horrible and selfish as it is, you secretly hope that something else happens and they come back into foster care so they can live with you again. You feel like that’s their only chance to be properly loved and provided for. Then that actually happens, and all over again you don’t know what to say or how to feel.

Foster care is hard. I’ve used 755 words to scratch the surface of the difficulty and unfairness of the foster care system. So why do we do it? Why do people like us choose to be a part of a system that often ends up harming the ones they long to protect? Why would anyone willingly enter the brokenness, frustration, and exhaustion that comes with caring for foster kids? Because that’s what Jesus did. “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).” We can do hard things (like foster care) because Jesus did hard things. We choose brokenness, frustration, and exhaustion because that’s what Jesus chose. We love because we are loved.

It’s very easy to get burned out working in foster care. It’s a calling that’s incredibly physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. But, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9). Sometimes that harvest is a kid knowing what it means to be safe. When a kid says yes when you ask ‘do you know that I love you’, that’s the harvest. It’s easy to become weary, but a random hug from a kid who’s had a bad day gives you hope that your work is not in vain. Foster care really is a beautiful ministry. It’s a system that both meets a short term need and has long term benefits. It’s the hands and feet of Jesus in the trenches of an eternal battle. It’s not glamorous or popular, but it’s needed and rewarding.

I’ll end on an upbeat note. 1 John 4:19 says that we love because He first loved us. We are so loved, beyond anything we can comprehend. Know that you are loved, and there is nothing quite like the love of God. Listen to this song and be happy because of how loved you are.

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!

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. 

This Job . . .

It was one year ago this week that Heidi and I accepted the offer to become family teachers at Thornwell. We never could’ve guessed how this place and this job would impact our lives. We feel exceedingly blessed to have found such a wonderful place full of wonderful people. We love every day we work with these kids. Ok, maybe not every day, but most days. This job is a lot of things. This job has taught us a lot of things. It’s been incredible and terrifying. It’s been fun and sad. Often in the same day. I love doing this job. I’m doing what God wants me to do. I’m not much of a list person, but here’s some more things about this job.

This job is:

Stressful. Heartbreaking. Frustrating. Emotional. Difficult. Exhausting. Exciting. Fun. Inspiring. Important. Rewarding. A calling. Needed.

This job has taught me:

Most “bad” kids are good kids who are struggling with something big. But there is such a thing a truly bad kid.

Even the bad kids can be sweet.

I’m not as patient as I thought I was.

I’m more emotional than I thought I was.

I’m selfish.

Some parents just don’t care about their kids. Some parents work really hard for their kids.

Regardless of what they say or do, all kids are still just kids.

Kids need choices.

Kids are smart, funny, clever, and have good memories.

Kids are unbelievably resilient.

No matter how bad parents are, kids still miss their mommy and daddy.

Age is just a number. Kids who are the same age can be very different developmentally, behaviorally, and socially.

I understand kids better than I thought I did. I still love working with kids.

I am overwhelmingly blessed to be married to and working with such an amazing woman.

     It’s coming to the end of National Foster Care month. This job has opened my eyes to a world I knew very little about. Foster care is a world that I am now passionate about, that I feel called to. It’s a world that changes lives, and makes things better for a kid who has never known what good can be.  This job has been a blessing to me, and I hope and pray that I have been able to bless these kids as much as I have been blessed.

     Just because National Foster Care month is ending, and soon we’ll stop posting daily pictures and articles about foster care and helping kids, the importance of this job doesn’t diminish on June 1. I know residential foster care is different that fostering in your own home, but the principles are the same. You use what you have been given to help kids who need it. Blessed people bless people. So what are you doing to bless? How have you been blessed? You don’t need to do what we did; we know it’s not for everyone. You need to be kind of crazy to work in residential care, and a whole different kind of crazy to work in assessment. If it’s not helping kids by opening your home, help out those who have been called to foster care. Collect clothes, toiletries, toys, and other things that these families will need. God calls us all to action. Here are some more things you can do.

This job is incredible. I’m so happy that Heidi and I answered God’s call to do this job.

-Mr. Jon

The Daily Grind

In the book of Nehemiah, God’s people follow a call to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah gathers, directs, and works alongside the Isrealites to restore the physical and also the mental/emotional state of their city. While I’m no theologian, when reading through Nehemiah I noticed that Nehemiah wasn’t specifically, audibly called by God for this job. God burdened his heart for these people. He begs God for His leading. He prays earnestly that God would open doors to restore His people. Nehemiah sees himself as willing and capable to respond to the need of God’s people. This is sometimes how I feel. God has burdened my heart with injustice. There is a problem that is near to God’s heart, just like in Nehemiah. I am a willing and capable servant answering a call.

But this is not the point. There is another element to this story of Nehemiah.

To be honest, the biblical narrative is kinda boring. There’s many lists of materials and names that are hard to pronounce. It’s not an epic tale with action, wars, and valiant bravery like David and Goliath. It’s about a fairly mundane task of repairing a broken down city, dealing with politics of kings and money, and finishing a necessary job. Specifically in chapter 3, it becomes very redundant in the explanation of how they rebuilt each piece of the wall.

 “The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam son of Berekiah, the son of Meshezabel, made repairs, and next to him Zadok son of Baana also made repairs.”

Frankly, these are hard thoughts to connect, but stay with me.

A servant of God was burdened when he saw a need. He then took on a tedious, mundane job, and it was documented. The book of Nehemiah does a thorough job of explaining the materials and procedures of fixing a wall. To me it seemed boring, but looking into it, there must be a reason God wanted it put in His Word. It’s makes sense, though, when you look at the importance of this ‘boring task’ of rebuilding the wall. A wall around their city was vital to establish boundaries, provide protection, and restore the people who had been in exile. It wasn’t a sought-after job, but it was needed. It wasn’t glorious, but it was necessary.

This is where I am.

Being a Family Teacher can be very mundane. Hitting a certain level of comfortability with our job has brought on a new need to be intentional about what we do. I found myself thinking of the verse ‘do not grow weary in doing good’ frequently this week as I completed many technical parts of this job – paperwork, meal planning, laundry, bedtimes, grocery shopping. I’m fairly certain that others feel this same way whether it be about their job, family, or anything one does on a regular basis. This is the Daily Grind. But we have to look past the practical into the importance of the job. If there is anything I’ve learned from a tough month in this job, it is how essential this task is. I think this is mirrored in the book of Nehemiah, in the life of Nehemiah. I have found much encouragement from reading through the small, mundane, daily role of the workers on that wall. They didn’t give up. They worked together. They had many obstacles, but overcame.

It seemed like a simple order to rebuild a wall. Yet, I can’t imagine it was easy to keep at it every day. It had to be hard to keep looking toward the end goal. Not many jobs are extraordinary, there is always a part of our lives that is mundane. But God has called us to it. He has called us to be faithful to Him, to see a need and meet it, to work to the best of our ability for His glory. He doesn’t ask us to change the whole world. He wants us to change OUR world, sometimes by faithfully completing everyday tasks with His love.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9