starry night: when we find ourselves in unexpected territory

Not sure if it’s denial or just complete rebellion, but we broke out a 1000-piece puzzle to work on for Christmas, even though we’re moving in a few weeks.

And, friends, this is not your normal puzzle. No, no, this is Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a thousand pieces of beautiful insanity requiring a magnifying glass, good lighting, and (probably) an inordinate amount of sheer stubbornness.

So, I’m in.

starry night: when we find ourselves in unexpected territory

Up close, Starry Night has trillions of faint lines that look like bones – a tibia here, a broken fibula there – and the subtlest shades of color make the light seem to fall against blue-black darkness. It has scratchy marks you’d never notice until looking intently at a magnified thousandth of it. None of the pieces give any indication what the big picture looks like.

We’re making slow progress on it while procrastinating through more responsible moving and house-selling duties. The last time we worked on puzzles was when I was pregnant with Finnegan, and I could justify slowness and rest with the contractions of early labor and all the other discomfort of late pregnancy. And in a way, we’re right here again – we’ve been pregnant for months, bursting at the seams in this house we’re overflowing out of, and restless for this new season, new structure, new routines.

We’ve been in labor for this move for a long time. Years.

We thought we wouldn’t be here this year. Actually, two years ago we thought we were spending our last Christmas here, and last year we were absolutely certain we would be living somewhere else by now.

But we’re still here. It’s a “finally suddenly” feeling; it seems too fast after all the slow waiting, and I want to hold on to certain pieces while flinging others into oblivion. It all melds together though. Just like days, years, memories, brushstrokes – they refuse to sort cleanly; they bleed into each other.

We are hip-deep in selling the house – repairs, paperwork, phone calls, oh my – and since it’s December, we’re also up to our ears in gatherings and festivities. Texts about scheduling and signatures come in rapid fire, and my phone sounds like it’s dinging “Carol of the Bells” on just one note.

We strive for margin, and in our striving sometimes we lose more white space. We imagine life to look a certain way, and it violently veers an entirely different direction.

I need to stop for a minute, slow down, and put a few of these pieces together; get some perspective.

I turned 41 last week.

(This is a good time to mention that last summer, Chamberlain asked what scallops were – lines, not shellfish – and I told her they were sort of like waves, and pointed to a nearby wooden crate with scalloped edges as an example. “Oh, like those?” she asked. “Those are scallops?” She was pointing to the wrinkles on my forehead.)

I’m 41 now, and we’re moving, and none of this looks the way I thought it would. We have a back-up plan to rent from a generous friend, but we haven’t found the right house to purchase, we don’t know exactly where we’re going, and we’re not really sure what we’re doing.

I’m not really sure what God’s doing with us.

But I’ve been looking way too closely at one or two pieces of this, and they are only thousandths of the picture. I know He sees the whole picture. I know He has a thousand reasons for having us where we are. But not knowing what those reasons are, or where He is sending us, or what He is doing, is hard.

I told a friend that this not knowing is doing many of the same things to me that fasting does – it brings up the dross, the hard questions, and tests my willingness to receive hard answers.

It also tests my ability to trust Him for good answers.

He and I have been talking about it a lot (a lot) lately. I’ve asked Him over and over, and He keeps saying, It’s a surprise, Love.

I’ve mouthed off something about not liking surprises and He hasn’t stricken me down. I’m the one who finds presents early, shakes them and squeezes them, and hides them in new places just to be a stinker.

Sheer stubbornness. See, told you.

But the season feels off, unfamiliar – it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not what we envisioned. We don’t picture the cramped house, people overflowing out of bedrooms, the special needs that interrupt daily interaction and normal activities, and children losing years to poor choices and mental illness. I talked to a woman recently who is also struggling through this season, wanting life to be the way it is supposed to be, instead of revolving around her husband’s addiction.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, because we never envision the angry, distant family member, or the job loss, or the person who’s always been there but suddenly isn’t because death took them too early.

None of it is what we expected, dreamed of, or asked for.

He meets us in the mess we are in, whether the mess is from our own choices, or the choices of someone else, or because He has a surprise in store to teach us that we’re not in control.

He’s telling me that when you find yourself where you never thought you’d be, He’s positioning you for something you never could have planned.

On that starry night, Mary probably never imagined her first experience of childbirth and motherhood would occur in unfamiliarity, in a barn, in the dirt.

Maybe Jesus was born where He was because we needed to know it is okay for things to not look the way they’re supposed to. Maybe it was so we’d know we have a King who doesn’t fit the mold. Maybe it was a thousand different reasons.

Maybe one of the reasons is to show us that our expectations and plans fall short. Maybe we would settle for mediocrity when we were made for more.

…. The rest of his days he spent…wondering and pondering why he had not found a way to the East. He blamed the unknown continent that barred his way. It never occurred to him to be grateful that the unknown American continent had been in his way. Otherwise he and his men would have starved to death on the endless way to Asia.

For the world was three times as wide around as Columbus had believed.

– Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire,  Columbus

Maybe we dream too small, too stubborn.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

– Ephesians 3:20-21, ESV

Saul the Pharisee never dreamed of becoming Paul the Evangelist. Peter, as a young fisherman, never imagined growing up to be the Rock the church would be built on. Columbus never planned on discovering America. John Adams, Abraham Lincoln – neither of them had any idea as children that they would be presidents who would direct and define our nation’s history.

And until the angel told her, Mary never imagined being the mother of the Messiah.

But when her plans were changed she gave the sacrifice of praise. Mary sang her magnificat though she never imagined being pregnant and unwed, shunned and suspected by society for the rest of her life. When she was engaged to Joseph, she didn’t think her wedding would be compromised by pregnancy and scandal.

All through history, none of the great figures and heroes had any idea what the big picture of their life would look like. They only saw a thousandth of it at a time, like you and me.

Except for Jesus. He was the only one who knew what He was getting into – way beyond inconvenience and into the depths of messy humanity. That’s where He chose to meet us.

And He is still meeting us here, right now, wherever we go.

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praying for liftoff: a message to adoptive and foster families, and the Church who loves them

Way back in June we got the email. But way back in June, October feels decades away.

It crept closer though, and we had flights, hotel, rental car, childcare, everything – all our ducks in a row. Within a week of departure, we had both vehicles in the shop, both vehicles back out of the shop, a cellphone busted and subsequently replaced, and last-minute dinner with friends.

praying for liftoff: a message to adoptive and foster families, and the Church who loves themAnd then twenty minutes before we were supposed to leave, we lost our keys.

Friends, we haven’t lost our keys in ten years. Maybe twenty. But an hour later, we still hadn’t found them and we finally threw up our hands, rushed our goodbyes, and took the Stagecoach into Anchorage.

We made it just in time – good friends made up for lost time and met us in Departures to take the Stagecoach home with them for a three day sleepover. We skipped baggage check, made it through security, found our gate.

Our first trip away, just the two of us, since going to Bulgaria five years earlier – not exactly a vacation, more of a business and ministry trip – but it was 72 hours of purely adult time, mostly together.

And after all that rush, we waited.

I didn’t realize how many tiers they have now for boarding classes.

The announcements start rolling: “Now boarding passengers with small children and those needing assistance.” Wait seven minutes. “Now boarding First Class.” Wait another five minutes.

Now boarding VIP members,” which, at this point, sounds pretty unconvincing because you’d think that status wouldn’t need to wait for the third turn – in which case, we can file “VIP” under I don’t think that means what you think it means.

After these three groups, they successively call Gold Star Members, Gold Star Members with Glitter, Members Who Refrained from Scowling While Enduring Security, Members Who Packed Tooth Floss, Members Who Actually Use Tooth Floss, and finally, District Twelve, may the odds be ever in your favor.

We found our seats somewhere around District Ten, stowed our bags, and settled in for the redeye. And I forgot how magical liftoff is: the sudden rumbling, the intense increase in speed, feeling more pressure as it constrains you into your seat, getting louder and louder until suddenly — lightness, like driving from a gravel road onto new pavement, and the ground tips diagonally out the window.

I wrote earlier in the month about how we should never confuse humility with cowardice, and I preached it back to myself as we left our kids and excuses behind, preparing my message for the mission ahead.

We need to care for adoptive and foster families because these are the people willing to bring the mission field right into their own homes. These are the radicals, a force to be reckoned with in fulfilling the Great Commission – so why does the Body of Christ not nurture and protect such a battalion? Why do we generally seek to enlist adoptive and foster parents, but do so little to maintain them after the papers are signed, and the balloons are deflating? Why does the Church at large leave these families to languish with a mere pat on the back? How do we help the Church understand what these families really signed up for?

These are the families traveling through life as those needing assistance. They are First Class, they are VIPs, but they’re often relegated to the Church’s tail-end, left to fend for themselves in thin air, barely breathing, as they fumble for oxygen.

These are the questions I took with me to Colorado Springs, to tape an interview for Focus on the Family’s radio broadcast.

We’ve partnered with their ministry for years. More accurately, we partnered with them years ago until we adopted, and the pressure constrained us to our seats to such an extent that the fasten seatbelt sign didn’t go off until sometime in 2015. Even then, the turbulence kept us from wandering too far up and down the aisle before the sign came back on and we had to rebuckle.

But the email came in June and it was an opportunity that would take a special kind of idiot to refuse — so, not being that special, so we took it – not just for us, or for me as a writer, but for adoptive and foster and special needs families who desperately need this message to get out. Because they are exhausted in their cramped seats and they need to get up and roam the cabin a bit before they can’t take it anymore, and yank the hatch open to jump out.

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

– Philippians 1:4-6, ESV

A day and a half later, I sat in a studio across from two men I greatly admire. During a thirty-minute conversation, while we barely skimmed the surface across the gamut of adoption and foster ministry, we emphasized that caregivers need to be cared for, too – and how that doesn’t always look like what people think. We talked about how adoptive, foster, and special needs families need more than lip service and affirming nods, because “support” is also often filed under I don’t think that means what you think it means.

Foster and adoptive families have strapped in and buckled down, and when the drinks were served, the plane hit rough air and the mess went everywhere. People with good intentions came by and dumped cleaning supplies and a bucket of water into the tight quarters, but it further spread the mess, increased the discomfort, and crowded the occupants.

These families need the people around them to understand the context of their situation so they can help clean up the mess and not just add to it.

These families know what it is to grow in faith to the point of needing more from God – not just wanting more in our ease and selfishness, but needing more to meet the service and vision He’s called us to. We remember being needy and hurting, too. They’ve been willing to walk in the mess of missions and ministry, and have not been afraid to get their hands dirty in the hard work of caring for others.

These families need to be reminded that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It’s not necessarily supposed to look finished yet. We may still be taxiing on the runway. That is okay.

Churches, extended families, and communities can learn how to support adoptive and foster families. We were able to take this trip because our church, family, friends, and community chose to learn how to stand alongside us. We could not have done it without a team of people willing to grow along with us.

Our friends come along side us, releasing the pressure of false expectations and ignorant assumptions. They know what it looks like in our homes behind closed doors. They know that some days, there’s a raging mess, screaming fits, and people either refusing to eat or gorging themselves on hidden food – not to mention what the kids might be doing.

These friends — they know it’s hard. They know you’re doing your best. They know that you never feel like your best is good enough, but they keep reminding you that it is good enough, because He’s good enough.

And it’s okay, you’re still taxiing.

These families need a community willing to step outside the glittery rainbow image the media has sold them, and into the often-gritty picture of reality in adoption and foster care. When that happens, they won’t give up on the Church because they’ll see that the Church hasn’t given up on them.

The Church – God’s Kingdom – is not built on those who quit, but on those who stay.

– David Pepper

And all our people are behind us, praying for liftoff.

____

You can listen to my interview here. Enjoy. :)

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praying for liftoff: a message to adoptive and foster families, and the Church who loves them

city lights: finding gold in palmer, alaska

I live about twenty minutes away from the town I was born in. I spent weekends, holidays, and summers there, and also a year of high school. It’s where I learned to swim, learned to drive, and learned to play hooky – good things and bad things, some not worth keeping, and others that didn’t stick the way they should.

city lights: finding gold in palmer, alaska

I skipped classes through the rest of high school and well into college; I got a knack for going over the speed limit that sent me to court once. And I still hate being in the water.

But I learned about Jesus in Palmer, Alaska.

That brave lady who’s learning to see in the dark still lives there. She’s the one who took me to church and introduced me to Him when I was little.

And some of it stuck, some of it didn’t – but mostly, what stuck didn’t matter because now I can see that He always did. When I learned to recognize and follow Him, He taught me to see in the dark, too: He showed me how to sort through all the choices and memories that required sifting, and to shine light on the gold that was in them, to see how He had been at work protecting me, teaching me, disciplining me, and pulling me out of a dark place.

So nine years ago, when part of our church peeled off as a new campus to shine a light in that town, we prayed and gave and cheered them on as they invested in the community, meeting in schools and auditoriums and wherever before they could finally settle in a building of their own. They were stirring stagnant water to reveal colors and shapes under murky creek silt. They disturbed the darkness.

That building was finished this summer, and I drove to it a few weeks ago. The road runs pretty straight from here to there; a little more than twenty minutes up and down hills, curving through roundabouts and passing fields, farms, and my old high school.

I love this town: the weathered buildings, the homesteads, the cottage industries, the farmers’ markets. I even, almost, love the spacious new cookie-cutter subdivisions (but not quite).

It’s changed a lot over the last few decades, but much is the same. Like every town it has good things and bad things, some not worth keeping, and others that didn’t stick the way they should.

I made a left at the stoplight and another left right after that, and the sun that had been at my back faced me. I was getting weepy I mean, my eyes were watering and I reached for my sunglasses.

Don’t put them on, Love, He said. I want you to see this unfiltered. You should see this in full color.

I put the glasses back on the passenger seat. The sun was low and the light was ablaze on barns, businesses, fields, and houses. The road was a wavy ribbon from the rolling landscape, and I slowed the car down as the new building came up on my right. I turned into the new parking lot, rolled to a stop. People, friends, strangers, were already streaming into the building. The view, all 360 degrees of it, was golden.

 I want you to see how beautiful it is here when the lights are on. People are still meeting Me in Palmer, Alaska.

house hunting: what we pull out of dry ground

We are still here, still looking at houses.

We go through the listings and check off their disqualifications: Too far away, too expensive, too small, too ratty. Not enough bedrooms, not enough bathrooms, no room for our dining room table, no privacy, soooper boring. Has restrictive covenants. Has an HOA. Doesn’t allow chickens, rabbits, domestic cats, wild children, sheer curtains, antique furniture, croquet sets, kayaks, kombucha, water guns, Nerf guns, real guns, or people who can shoot guns.

house hunting: what we pull out of dry ground

We’re not waiting on perfection, but it feels like it, and we use the term “perfect” very loosely. We know what we’ve prayed for, and we know what He’s said. We just haven’t found the match yet.

House hunting has become like scavenging for food in the kitchen when you’re hungry but too tired to cook: You go to the fridge, reject everything; go to the cupboard and reject everything there; then you go back to the fridge with lower standards and hope something jumps out at you with some virtue you hadn’t noticed before. Oh, peanut butter and apples. Hmm. I could maybe go for that.

And that’s sort of what we’re doing now as we look for houses. Oh, a one-acre lot that’s full of weeds and in the wrong area, but it has enough bedrooms and pretty nice flooring. Huh. I guess that might work.

But we’re also still waiting on a buyer for our house here, so we have time. We have another showing tomorrow morning, and though I won’t have time for any mercenary baking, I’ve leveraged it to get tons of extra chores out of all the older kids – vacuuming, dishes, straightening bookshelves, you name it – while I sit here and type this post, eating bonbons and sipping a martini.

(Every bit of that’s entirely accurate, except the last part. Pretty sure I don’t like martinis. And I already binged on chocolate last night, so that’s not really true either. But, you know, everything else. Gospel truth.)  

We are beyond ready to move on, be done with showings, get where we’re going, divide and conquer the bedroom situation, and unpack our books. If this showing tomorrow results in an offer, I might do cartwheels and dance the funky chicken. I may even try a martini. Though it would probably require several of the latter to facilitate the former…so I digress.

This season of transition has been long and unsettling. There are more than just physical moves afoot, and we have a lot of questions we’d like answers to. We are in a season with kids, work, and mission where we’re at a loss for what to do in certain areas and we need Him to just move some situations for us.

In a non-physical sense, we clearly know where we are supposed to go. We just have no idea how to get there.

…Command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’ – Joshua 4:3, ESV

We need Him to part the waters so we can pull stones out of a place we could never access in our own strength and ability. We’ll be happy to put them on display for the world to see once we’re safe on the other side.

He’d done it for the Israelites before – different river, different crossing. Different battle. And He’s done it for us before, too.

The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal.

And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’

For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”

– Joshua 4:19-24, ESV

Though, they weren’t really safe on the other side, and we weren’t either. The other side doesn’t mean ease and comfort. It’s just that once you’re on the other side, you’re all in – committed, no turning back, the water fills in the gap behind you and the only way to go is forward. It was true for them, and it will always be true for us.

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work…He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

– 2 Corinthians 9:8, 10-11, ESV

They had proof that He was mighty. So do we, if we choose to recognize it when it happens, and remember it when we face the river.

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from one hermit to another

I was baking and it was completely mercenary. We had a showing in one hour and I wanted the house to smell amazing.

(Pause: In spite of the amount of cooking I do, I want to reaffirm that this will never evolve into a foodie blog, as I’ve mentioned before. Not because I don’t like cooking, or because I’m bad at cooking, or because I don’t like writing about cooking. It’s just that the everyday level of chaos here is more satirical than informational, and…well, you’ll see. Okay, resume.)

from one hermit to another

Last week we had three house showings in a span of twenty-four hours. Craziness. It’s what my nightmares were made of back when I used to think of putting the house on the market: How do we get the house clean enough (and empty enough) to make it look sterile and appealing to strangers? How do we get all the kids and cats to cooperate? How do we make it look like a normal family lives here, instead of one that outnumbers the Brady Bunch and also comes with a small cat farm?

We’ve learned a few tricks. We hide beds trundle-wise. We clear as much surface area as possible. And we take the cats with us – which upgrades the “how many clowns can you fit into a circus car” joke to the rank of how-many-Guerras-can-you-fit-in-a-Stagecoach. Turns out, all thirteen of us do: each cat gets a carrier, each person gets a seatbelt. Two of the cats go on kids’ laps while the other two cry and hiss at each other in the back.

It’s awesome. Exactly what I imagined when Vince promised me years ago that he would lead me on adventures. Sort of.

So that day last week, I was baking hermit bars. Have you had these? They’re a spongy, spicy, not-too-sweet, completely euphoric blend of cloves, molasses, cinnamon, and nutmeg. See, I told you. No mercy.

They’d been in the oven for a whole two minutes before anyone smelled smoke. Detritus in the bottom of the oven from a few meals back had started to smolder, and instead of wooing buyers with the smell of spicy sweetbread, we frantically threw all the windows and doors open to air out the house.

It, too, was awesome. Just like I’d planned, except the exact opposite.

We put the hermits on hold in the fridge, and got ourselves, the cats, and the smell of smoke out of the house just in time. We loaded the Stagecoach and went down the road to the park to wait it out.

Strange vehicles pulled into our driveway, and strange people walked into our house.

It’s a weird feeling, wanting them there, wanting them to fall in love with what you’ve prepared for them, and yet at the same time feeling a little violated. I didn’t feel it so much during the first two showings when we were out running errands, but this time I felt the whole gamut of excitement and unsettledness because I kept spying peeking checking from the shelter of the twisty slide. Which, now that I think of it, isn’t really isn’t that unfamiliar of a feeling as an introvert.

(Quick aside: I have a book signing in Anchorage soon, and I anticipate some of these same feelings. Barnes and Noble is sorely lacking in twisty slides to hide behind, though, so I’ll be brave and do my best to appear well-adjusted and sociable. I would love, love, love to see you there, and I promise not to hide under the table even once. )

After forty minutes the strange cars left. Once home, I threw the hermits back in the oven, determined to eat enough of them to ruin my dinner.

They take all of ten minutes to throw together and 17 minutes to bake. I’ll give you the recipe and they’re worth making as soon as possible even if you’re not trying to coax people into buying your house. This isn’t official, fancy, or fussy; there’s no sifting, separating eggs, etc., though you could do any of those if you really enjoy that sort of thing. This is how I make them, quick and dirty, and it’s as foodie as I’ll get. Promise.

In a medium bowl, mix 1 ½ cups brown sugar, 2/3 cup olive oil, ¼ cup molasses, 2 eggs, 2 ½ cups flour, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and The Magical Ingredients: 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Grab hold of the counter and refrain from swooning. Some recipes call for raisins, walnuts, or currants, but I love my family and leave those out.

Now is a good time to preheat your oven to 350. Fahrenheit. You knew that, though.

Once you’ve mashed everything together with a rubber spatula, the results will be more like bread dough than brownie batter, and you’ll need to plop it into a greased 9×13 baking pan and use that spatula to spread it out in a thinnish layer.

Throw it in the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes. Once they’re cool enough to eat without burning yourself, devour at least half the pan while your kids aren’t looking and ruin your dinner like I did. No shame.

That night our Realtor texted me. She said the family loved the house but they thought it was too small for them. And I confess I responded with some thoughts that were rather, uh…expletivey…as I thought of our baker’s dozen of humans and animals, and longed for a little more space, too.

We’re keeping the house sterile (mostly) and I am exhausted. The adrenaline rush has worn off. While part of me is loving the minimalist white space around here, the other part of me wants to fling laundry all over the floor and leave dirty dishes in the sink to ferment.

But not tonight. We have another showing tomorrow, so I’m back to mercenary baking. It’ll probably be hermits again, because how can you not love a treat that shares its name with extreme introverts? But this time I’ll remember to clean the oven first.