Sunday, November 6, 2016

Orphan Sunday

Today is Orphan Sunday....kind of a weird name if you ask me.  I guess I am just not a fan of labels and it feels like calling someone an "orphan" is insulting.  Despite it's name, I think this day is a great wake up call for all of us to look around and see what we can do to help those around us. Not all of us are called to be foster parents, or to fly off to Africa to build an orphanage, but some of us are!  However, if you can't picture that being a part of what God has in store for you, it doesn't mean you are off the hook. James 1:27 clearly tells us that we are, " to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."  

So, how do we do that in our everyday lives?  I have an idea, or two to share with you if you are interested. 

What if...the next time we went to one of our kid's sporting events, we cheered for the kid whose parents are never at the game?  And let's be careful not to point our fingers at that mom or dad either.  Maybe it's a single mom who is working two jobs just to put food on the table, or maybe the parent is caring for younger children or an ailing parent.  But, what if we stood in the gap for them, bought their kid a water, encouraged him or her to do their best, maybe even paid for them to have a team picture, or any of the 20 things that come up as an extra expense during the season?  

What if...we shared a little extra love and kindness to that neighbor kid that is always asking to play with your kid?  Maybe treat him or her to ice cream or a nice popsicle on a hot day.  And what if we sat down and talked with him or her, really talked and connected with them in a way that let them know they mattered and you really cared?  What if we invited the neighbor kid to join in with our family game of baseball, or the next water balloon fight? Would it make a difference in his or her life?

What if we did Christmas a little different this year? Are there any children you can think of that could benefit from a little extra love given anonymously? Could we come alongside a family that is struggling and make sure their son or daughter has a present, or two, or three to open on Christmas morning?

What if we invested in a student at our local school, making sure he or she had the school supplies needed to begin the year off right?  Is there a child in your life that could use some new school clothes?  Extra help with homework? Someone to listen to him or her read?

What if we just showed love to all of those sweet little faces that we came in contact with?  What if we looked past the dirty clothes, the sometimes ornery behavior, or if you are from a small town, it might even mean looking past the last name, and just loved all of the people, big and small, in our lives.  Maybe they don't match up with the Webster's dictionary definition of  orphan (or widow) but sharing a little extra love certainly couldn't hurt, right?

These are just a few ideas that come to mind, but I hope you have found one that fits for you. Maybe you have some other ideas that you could share in the comment section below. 


Monday, July 4, 2016

The Heart of the Matter

Goodness, what a great summer we have been enjoying here in the Midwest.  I think we have swam more this summer so far than all of last year combined, and though the last few days have been unseasonably cool, we are hoping to enjoy some splashing in the sun by this afternoon.

Maybe it's just us, but every year there seems to be that one item that we have purchased, undoubtedly on clearance at the end of the last summer season, that everyone wants.  Sometimes it is a particular raft, other times a pool toy that has unknown magical powers!  Goggles are the coveted item in this year's pool.  Not just any pair though, because we have at least 4 pairs out there at last count.  No, this years coveted goggles are THE ones (yep just one pair) that not only cover your eyes and allow the ability to see underwater without that awful chlorine burn, but also cover your nose so that you don't have to plug it. These goggles are not too big, not too small, but alas, these goggles are just right.  More than one squabble has erupted over this coveted pair of goggles.

The other day as I was watching my Skyler girl swimming around in the goggles it made me remember my pool days from years gone by. (More years than I care to mention:) I remember as a little girl, laying on my back underwater and looking up through the water at the distorted view of what was above the waters. Sometimes I would squint my eyes and try to make sense of what it was I was actually seeing, while other times I would swim around oblivious to what was actually happening above the water or even right around me. Other times, as I navigated the murky lake waters, I was only able to see what was right in front of me.

Actually that is exactly how I could describe these last few years.  I have been so overwhelmed with the circumstances around me that I have not always been able to see very clearly and only had the time or energy to focus on what was right in front of me.  Raising 8 kids is not an easy task under normal circumstances, but when you factor in the additional circumstances of NEVER ENDING court dates and battles, multiple false allegations, constant caseworker visits, a broken foster care system, extended family heartache, and ministry challenges you have a recipe for short sighted survival mode.

That's it really, these past few years we have just been treading water and surviving.  We could see the shore in the distance but every time we tried to swim toward it, we would be swept away by the current of our circumstances.  If you know me, then you know that a lot of time was spent making sure everyone had on their life vests, and that they were nice and tight, but it seems that no sooner would I get one life vest tethered up just right, that another would come loose and I would have to turn my attention to that situation.  Eight years of this can be exhausting.  Eight years of this has been exhausting. On more than one occasion I have comforted myself with the lyrics of the old hymn, "Oh soul are you weary and troubled, no light in the darkness you see? There's light for a look at the Savior and life more abundant and free. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace." (Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus written by Helen Lemmel)

I imagine that Paul could relate to my circumstances when he penned these words in 2 Corinthians 4:

 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 

Paul was weary from the constant trouble of his day, not the same troubles that I have been facing, and probably not the troubles that you have been facing, but a troubled heart is a troubled heart.  And though I do not know what trials you are facing this day, I know the same God that Paul writes about and the hope He brings.  Paul ends that same chapter by writing:

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Have you ever read a passage like that and walked away thinking, "Well good for you Paul. I'm glad it worked out for you, but I'm just not feeling it?" In all honesty I can say that I have.  I know that Jesus told us that in this world we would have trouble, and reassured us to  "take heart" because he has overcome the world. (John 16:33)  It's just that I didn't expect to have this much trouble and I am disillusioned by the weight of these last eight years.  And I have allowed my heart to become heavy with things rather than trusting God with them, and in doing so my heart sprung a leak and began taking in water.  Heavier and heavier it grew and I just keep doggie paddling.  Treading water will help you survive but doesn't really get you closer to the shore.  What it does get you is tired.  Unless...

Unless you are conditioned for it.  If you have taken the time to practice treading, to prepare your body for the endurance  it takes to stay afloat, to strengthen your core, then you can endure hours, weeks, and even years of treading water. No one makes it to the Olympics without hours, months and years of training and painful, and tiring workouts.

Our Spiritual bodies are no different, we must exercise our faith muscles to make them stronger.  We must work on the core of our spirit in order to strengthen our overall spirit.  So what is the core of our spirit?  I believe it is our heart.  The Bible is filled with verses about the heart and when we talk about giving our lives to Christ, we ask Him to come and live IN our hearts.  One of my favorite verses is a reminder to us of how important it is to take good care of our heart. Proverbs 4:23 tells us, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." 

Sounds like a core muscle to me!
Oh but these last few years my heart has felt so heavy, weighed down by the realities of the world, by my own poor choices, and sometimes I have just been going through the motions of being a Christian because it is what's expected.  I was sure God had a different answer for the trials I was facing, and when the battled ended and I was not the one taking the victory lap, something happen inside of me.  My core spiritual muscle got broken. And sometime during that battle, I lost heart, like an athlete who is on fire and overflowing with talent and then suffers a major injury and never really regains his or her fire for the game.  The headlines read, "Star Athlete Loses Heart." That is where I was standing, or rather laying.  My heart hasn't really been in it.  I continued to go to church, what else would the pastor's wife do?  I  continued to pray for others, to encourage others to walk in the faith, and to believe that God is who He says He is.  But my heart was working on autopilot and my vision was distorted as I lay flat on my back in the pool of brokenness.

This is not a good place to be, and after awhile you either run out of breath and die, or you muster your strength and swim to the surface to take a fresh breath of air.  The choice is yours, the air is available to everyone, if you want to put forth the effort it will take to swim to the surface.  I love this promise from Ezekiel 36 verse 26, "26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."
A new heart is there, fresh for the taking.  We can chose to leave our heart of stone behind and exchanged for a heart of flesh.  The best news is that God will perform the surgery, we just have to ask Him to!  Beyond that, He wants to serve as our personal trainer, strengthening our core muscle so that we can endure the hardships that are sure to come, and to heal from those that have already left their mark on us.

Last summer I read a book written by Dutch Sheets entitled, Hope Restored, and I assume it was the inspiration for Danny Gokey's new hit.  (You can listen to that here.) Pastor Sheets tells the amazing story of a heart surgeon who was struggling to get a patient's heart to restart.  Finally, out of other options, he leans down and whispers in the patient's ear, "Tell your heart to beat again," and miraculously that is exactly what happens!  He goes on to relate that perhaps God is saying that as He looks down into our broken hearts, the wounds are deep and our core is damaged.  Healing is on the shore, but every time we start to make progress toward it, we are swept again into the current by our circumstances.  Remember the story of Peter, who walked on the water with confidence UNTIL he took his eyes off Christ and began to sink (Matthew 14)? Perhaps, we simply need to, turn our eyes "upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face..."  and then we will be able to take a fresh new breath and exchange our heavy hearts for hearts that are renewed and strengthened for what lies ahead?  Will you join me for a swim?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Healing A Broken Heart

It has been 459 days since our world has been turned upside down.  459 days since not one, but two very large holes were blasted into our lives with an aftershock that only those who have walked this path can fully understand.  459 days ago, I had to say good bye to two boys that had been a part of the everyday fabric of our lives since their births.  They had been placed here in our home by the Department of Children and Family Services along with two other siblings.  If you follow my blog, you know many of the ups and down of this situation and there is no need to rehash the heartache here.  Today's blog is about how you can begin the process of healing after being in such a place of brokenness.

To be honest, I feel like I have only just begun the process of healing and am by no means an expert in the matter.  However, I have found a few things that have helped and hope that by sharing them here someone else can be encouraged to find healing.

I have always had such a hard time dealing with heartache and tend to run the other direction from anything that looks even remotely like it might be painful.  The hardest part in my journey toward healing has been to allow, and even force myself to "Be still and know that He is God." (Psalm 46:10) My quiet time has taken a hard hit because of the broken place I have been in.  This is not because I am angry at God, or that I have lost faith in Him, but rather that to sit before the Lord means to be vulnerable to myself about the depth of hurt I am running from.  This has been the largest obstacle to healing. So a great place to start is to reconnect with the Lord and allow Him to be the healer of your soul.

Another thing that has helped me is to allow myself to remember and to talk about the memories with others.  I have read a lot recently that one of the hardest things about losing a love one to death is that people are afraid to say their name, especially around those grieving the loss.  I know that my loss is not exactly death but the loss is very similar.  That actually is part of the frustration, it is a unique place to be in, suffering a great loss but not one that is really recognized by society as such.  There are no "Sorry for the loss of your foster kid" cards out there on the market.  And as for support groups for other people in my shoes, well I haven't been able to find one anywhere near here.  A great second step toward healing though is to treasure the memories you had.

Recently one of the boys celebrated his 3rd birthday and though I cannot deliver it to him, I decided to write him a birthday card.  I just shared how much I loved and missed him and prayed that he was happy and healthy where he was.  I plan to continue this tradition in hopes of maybe one day being able to share these cards with the boys so that they will know that I didn't just walk away and stop caring.  Maybe I will never get that opportunity, but hope is like a healing balm to a weary soul.  And so I hope.  Hope and creating new memories is another great stride toward the journey of healing.

One last step I hope to be taking soon is to make some changes in the world around me.  Pain has a way of catapulting people into action and I hope to be able to use this part of my story to help others who are struggling with some of these same things. This blog is the first step in that journey, but I eventually hope to start a support group for other foster parents who are struggling.

Let me leave you with a few verses that I hope will encourage you as much as it has me...

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord In the land of the living. Wait for the Lord;  Be strong and let your heart take courage;  Yes, wait for the Lord.
 Psalm 27:13-14


He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
Psalm 147:3

Sunday, March 13, 2016

2786 days......almost 9 years ago we stumbled into the world of foster parenting.  We arrived here quite by accident and with the intentions of being a stepping stone to repair a broken path.  However, somewhere along the road, somewhere between day 1 and day 2786, things changed.  I can't pinpoint the exact moment that things shifted from hoping to reunite a family to hoping to enlarge ours, but the shift happened.

Many of you have faithfully followed us on this bumpy path as I have blogged our journey in bits and pieces through the posts here on this page.  So as I sit typing today, it is with the hope of inviting you to join us in celebrating. Celebrating the end of 2786 days.  Celebrating the beginning of a billion new days.  As of 9:20 am, March 11, 2016. Skyler and Anthony have officially become Graham's.

The waiting is over...

Psalm 30:5b, "Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning."

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Living Intentionally

Lately I have heard a lot of people throwing around the words, "Live intentionally," and I have been wondering what exactly that means.  How does one go about living intentionally?

I think it has to do with planning...with thinking ahead and setting a purpose.  As a teacher, when I introduce a new science topic or a new reading story I work with my students to set a purpose for reading.  We do that by asking ourselves some questions (What do I already know about this topic? What do I want to learn?  What do you think this is going to be about? etc...)  After we have set a purpose, then we can read the piece and focus specifically on what it is we are wanting to learn.

I think this same idea can be applied to living life intentionally.  It is no secret that I am a type A personality.  I am a planner.
Monthly menu...check
Once a month shopping...check
To do list...check
Lesson plans for the week...check
Lesson plans for the month....well I wish but I am not THAT good!

Because I am a planner, living intentionally doesn't seem too threatening or overwhelming.  I have a running checklist in my head at all times (no surprise I know!).  It is more like a question list:

Did I share some time in the Word and in prayer with my kids?
Did I share Jesus with others in my words and actions?  or
How can I share Jesus with others today in my words and actions?
Have I talked to each of my kids today? (some no longer live at home)
Did I have a face to face conversation...a real one... with my husband today?
What's for supper? Did I get it started before work or get meat out to thaw? 
Did I get my work out in?
Did I eat healthy and drink my water?
Did I connect with at least one friend?
Did I complete at least one load of laundry?
Did I encourage my students?  Coworkers? ?

Have I spent time with each of my kids at home one-on-one?
Is everyone's homework done?
Teeth brushed?  Baths?
Did I tuck them in and pray with them?

Please don't call the men in white coats to come get me...I really am not (too) crazy!  Maybe all of these questions seem overwhelming and I honestly do not succeed at answering yes to every one of them every day, but having an idea in mind of what I want to accomplish with each new day helps me to do a better job at being a mom/wife/teacher/friend on a daily basis.  Zig Ziggler said it best when he wrote, "If you aim for nothing, you'll hit it every time."

The downside of this is that you can become either discouraged if you are not able to check off this list of good intentions, or rigid and so focused on checking off your list that you miss God's intentions for you on any given day.  You must remain flexible in your intentions!  Can you see me squirming?  Even typing the word flexible makes the planner in me a bit uneasy.  I wanted to type, "flexible-ish" which is a new word I have invented for those times when I am called on to be flexible and I want to say, "Sure I am flexible-ish..." while smiling and trying to fight back the feeling of panic and doom that is rising within me as my type A brain is screaming, "But this isn't what we planned!"

That wrestling match brings me to one of my favorite verses. Proverbs 16:9 says, "In his heart a man plans his ways, BUT the Lord directs his steps." (emphasis mine)

Life these days is clipping away at lightening fast speeds and if we aren't careful we will be so caught up in surviving the day to day that we will get to the end of our days and have nothing but regrets to show for them.  Whether you are in your teens, twenty's, thirty's, fourty's, or beyond, it is never too late to begin living a bit more intentionally.  What goals can you set for the next week?  What area of your life would you like to see some change in?  What specific steps could you take to begin moving in the right direction for those changes?  Start with baby steps....small successes lead to giant victories, and giant victories are leaps toward living an intentional life...a life with no regrets!

Happy trails my friends!  Feel free to leave a comment here or email me with any questions you may have!  We can do this together!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

So You Wanna Change the World...

Deep within my very soul I have always had this incredible yearning to change the world.  Well, I say always, but I am not really sure when this desire awakened within me.  I cannot remember a time when I haven't wanted to be a part of making the world a better place.  Does that sound corny?  Maybe, but I don't know how else to explain it.  I just want to leave the world, and every part of it, better than when I first got there.

I guess that is really our calling as believers of Christ, right?  As we share our faith with others, it is our hope that they will understand what Christ has done for them and join us on the journey.  I am certain that God has placed this desire within me.  I guess the problem is that I don't really think I have been all that successful in this endeavor.

Every time I read my Bible and come across stories like Noah, or Abraham, even the unwilling Jonah, and see how God used them to change the world I can't help but want to be a part of that.   However, every morning when my alarm clock goes off, I muddle through my day and drop back into bed several hours later, not really having done anything significant let alone life changing.

I am not saying that I have never lead anyone into an eternal, life changing relationship with Christ, but it has been a long time since I have had that privilege.  The problem is just that, I can't remember the last time I felt like I was making a difference. 

A few years ago, Natalie Grant released a song entitled, "What Are You Waiting For?"  The chorus is:
                     "So you wanna change the world
                       What are you waiting for
                       You say you're gonna start right now
                       What are you waiting for
                       It only takes one voice
                       So come on now and shout it out
                       Give a little more
                       What are you waiting for"

Every time I hear this song I can't help but puzzle through this dilemma again.  You see, I WANT to change the world, I just can't seem to figure out how and therefore, I don't know what I am waiting for.  I have prayed about it and asked God what it is that he wants me to be doing, but I just can't seem to pinpoint an answer.

Certainly I have had seasons where I can look back and see that I was a part of God's grander plan, but as I stand in church Sunday after Sunday, I can't help but feel stuck.  There have been times when  it feels like I am walking around in a fog.  I spend my days cleaning up toothpaste from sinks, spills from the table, mud from the floors, and none of this seems very life changing.  Occasionally the fog lifts and I am able to see that I am making a difference in small ways with my family.

But, can I be honest?  It just doesn't seem like enough.  There are people walking through life lonely and broken.  There are children who have no one to love them.  There are broken people everywhere and I wish I could figure out how I can be a part of changing their world.

Usually, this is the point in my post where I share some "Ah-ha" moment and wrap things up.  The problem is, I haven't yet had that moment of insight.  I guess all I can leave you with is the challenge that we all have the same calling to change the world, to go out and share Christ, and maybe it is only in looking back that we can see we actually have? wanna change the world?  What are you waiting for?

Questions?  Comments?  I always love to hear them!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Two Empty Seats at My Table

It is early here at the Graham house.  I am the only one awake this early on Thanksgiving Day.  Even our dog, Finley, my constant companion, has chosen sleep over being awake this early.  The turkey is stuffed and I am just beginning to smell the aroma as it begins cooking.  All of the pies are baked and side dishes are prepped.  Everything is ready for our celebration.  Well, almost everything.

It seems my heart is not quite ready for the day.  Traditionally, this day is all about celebrating all the blessings that we have, and being thankful for all that the past year has brought us.  And, that is where the problem comes in for me.  I am finding it difficult to be thankful for the past year.  When I look back at the past year, what I feel the most is not gratefulness at what we have harvested from this year, but rather a deep sadness at what we have lost.  Today as we go about our celebrations, there will be two empty chairs at my table.  Two chairs that should be filled with giggling boys and spilled drinks; filled with silly jokes, shared memories, and way too many sweets.  Instead, what I will feel is their absence, and no matter how hard I try, I just cannot be thankful for that.

Oh, I know I am not the only one with empty chairs at my table.  I guess that is what prompted me to write this blog.  Many of us have suffered the loss of a loved one since last Thanksgiving.  Maybe not in the same way as my family, but loss is loss.   So as I wrestle with these emotions, I am not alone.

You probably know the history of this holiday but let's take a peek back and see if we can learn anything new.  Thanksgiving was first celebrated back in 1621.  The Pilgrims had just harvested their first successful crop of corn and their leader, William Bradford, was pumped!  He sends out a group of hunters so that they can add some meat to their party, and he even extends an invite to the Wampanoag Indians.  They had so much to be thankful for that their feast lasted 3 whole days.

Three days...I am struggling to keep it together for just one day. But that is different,  they had A LOT to be thankful for so it was easier for them, right?  Well- not exactly.  You see, the Pilgrims had come to the New World with great hopes and dreams.  Hopes for a new life free of religious persecution.  Dreams of settling in and making a name for themselves with all the unknown possibilities just waiting to be claimed.  What they got instead was a whole lot of hardship.  The passage over was rougher than they had expected, lives were lost and hopes were fading.  Once they reached the new land the flames of their dreams began to burn again, but the smoke of sadness still hung over them.  By the time they harvested their first crops of corn and were making preparations for their Thanksgiving, less than half of the newcomers were still alive to celebrate.  There were a few empty seats at their table.

For three days they feasted and took time to count their blessings.  God had provided them with a cornucopia (I have always wanted to use this word!) of  things to be thankful for. And they were thankful ~DESPITE~ the losses they had suffered.  Yes, their hearts were heavy as they thought of all of those empty chairs.  Life had not turned out the way they had hoped and dreamed it would.  However, those that celebrated were alive, they had food to eat and a place to sleep.  These might seem like small things but these are the things they were not taking for granted.

Perhaps this is what I am missing as I face this day, a peace in remembering all that I do have to be thankful for.  I have a very full table this Thanksgiving, there will be giggling and spilled drinks, silly jokes, shared memories, and way too many sweets.  Yes, there will be some sadness as well but I think the biggest thing I must remember is what the Pilgrims surely knew.  Words of wisdom from my favorite author...

 Everything?  Yes, in everything the Pilgrims gave thanks.  In the things that had been lost, in the things that had been found, in the new and for the old, they gave thanks.  So, I will take notes from my Pilgrim friends and set my heart on counting my blessings rather than my burdens today.  Will you join me?