The Only Way Through

I wrote this reflection 13 weeks ago on the day of the Parkland school shooting.  It happened again today, this time closer to home in Santa Fe, Texas.  Deep down we all know it’s only a matter of time until it happens again somewhere else… it’s almost enough to make us barely notice, as though this is a “normal” risk of going to school. 

Every mama I know prays it won’t be in her baby’s classroom.  But the truth is, every gunman walks into a class filled with someone’s babies and lays waste to so many dreams.

  I don’t know what to do.  But I do know we can’t afford go numb.

parkland shooting(Image Credit: AP/Joel Auerbach – February 14, 2018 in Parkland, FL)

I can’t get her face out of my mind. Sobs wracking her body as she stands outside her child’s school, clutching a friend as though they have discovered the only truth there is to know: The only way through this war zone is if we carry one another. Her head is smeared with ashes. From dust you came, to dust you return.

I saw the picture when the ashes were still fresh on my own skin. And I thought about the moment my pastor drew his thumb across my head – reminding me of my mortality and my security in the no-matter-whatness of God. Despite the somber words I certainly didn’t consider, as little specks of ash fluttered down and brushed my eyelashes, that I might leave the church and end up in the ER or in an accident or getting a phone call that takes me to my knees. And this mama, with her pretty white-flowered shirt and silver heart necklace, certainly didn’t consider that she might leave the church and end up on the front lawn of her child’s school with her heart broken apart, begging God for one more day with her baby… for more life out of this dust.

We need a savior, and as we start the long march of Lent that leads us to the cross, we know Jesus is coming to break the shackles and the bonds and restore all that’s broken. But you don’t need a savior if nothing is shackled, bound or broken. So Lent starts in repentance – humbly acknowledging our finitude and need for a savior. Did the shooter know the day he chose? Did he choose Valentine’s Day for a reason? Was his heart so broken that he felt like the only way through the war zone was to take others out? Oh God, we need to repent… for not recognizing our own part in this tragedy.

Talking heads are already starting to argue. Is it mental health or gun control? Hurry, pick your side. But either/or debates don’t help us find our way in times like this; everything complex is usually both/and… and the truth is, I think deep down most of us know somehow we need to meet in the middle. But we don’t know how to find the middle, so we retreat into corners and start pointing fingers. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ sound hollow when these shootings have become so commonplace that they are just another blip on a relentless cycle of terrible news. We wring our hands and sigh and then we forget. It doesn’t even come up at dinner. Ashes. It’s all ashes. We’re going down in flames. Screaming louder and louder at one another as if we think the only way through this war zone is to pull someone else down so we can climb on top. Oh God, we need to repent… for being so afraid that we won’t be heard that we can’t even listen.

As bullets ricocheted off classroom doors and lockers in Florida yesterday, I walked down the locker-lined halls of my daughter’s school. A first grade Valentine’s Party is pure sweetness and light and sugar. We had the kids do an activity where they each drew the name of a classmate and listed out some of their favorite things about that child. As they exchanged cards, I saw eyes light up and broad smiles spread across frosting-smeared faces. One little girl said reading the card she was given made her feel happy and bubbly inside. I looked around the room and wanted to freeze time. To keep these little kids little – tender and eager and open-hearted and bubbly. In 10 years, which one will be the loner? The misfit? The outcast? The popular one who uses his or her platform to push someone else down? Oh God, we need to repent… for letting kids fall through the cracks.

I returned from the party to our church which is positioned across the street from one of our city’s high schools. The day before, the same high school was on lockdown because someone brought a gun to school. A trigger away from a tragedy. Each day after school, hundreds of students – maybe even the one who brought a weapon to school – traipse through our building to the free soda fountains. A ministry of carbonated beverages. I sat down at a table and played UNO with some kids whose stories brim with sadness and mistakes and bad choices and loss, covered in a veneer of bravado and toughness. How close have I been to a kid who is screaming to be seen and known and loved and valued and is a hair-trigger away from exploding their grief outwards and propelling us to the national headlines? For all their toughness, I can’t help but wonder if anyone gave them a card when they were seven that listed out all the best things about them? Oh God, we need to repent… for being too busy to engage the hurting and the lonely.

We may be mere dust, but we are each dust formed into the image of a living, breathing God. We may be returning to dust, but we each know this life is precious and deserves protection. God forgive us for forgetting our own worth. Forgive us for forgetting the worth of those around us. Forgive us for failing to see your reflection in the eyes of the stiff-shouldered, clouded-eye high school kid whose hoodie is pulled up, guarding him from the world but not containing the pain-metastasizing-into-anger that is seeping out of his soul. Forgive us for giving into polarization and assuming that since “they” aren’t doing anything to solve the problem, we can’t do anything either.

Father, forgive us.

And help us remember: The only way through this war zone is to carry one another.

When Mother’s Day is Complicated

pexels-photo-1058287.jpegWhen she was a toddler, my oldest girl would give these squeeze-the-life-out-of-you hugs.  It was as though she wanted to compress all the welling-up passion and emotion and energy she felt into a tiny ball – a nuclear reactor in the center of her heart – and transmit it to me.  She’d grit her teeth and squeeze until her arms turned red.  I’d feel her core muscles tense and tighten and she’d hold her breath – all available energy put into this act of transmitting her love.

These days, she’s less physical in her affection, but as I tuck her in at night, she often squeals with the same intense energy.  I love you, I love you, I love you so much! And as I walk out of her room at night, the last thing I usually hear is her telling me I’m the best mom in the whole world.

It takes my breath away.  I know someday she’ll tell me she hates me and slam the door in my face.  It’s a right of passage every mother of girls goes through, I hear.  And I don’t think she’s mistaken ‘best’ with ‘perfect.’  God knows we tussle and have our moments and I have reasons to apologize to her at least 23 times a day.  But in that moment before she falls asleep, the world is outside and for just a second it’s just the two of us, orbiting each other in our own little universe.  And in that moment she tells me I’m all she needs out of a mama.

And I wonder what that’s like.

In my own childhood, I don’t recall ever looking at my mom and thinking that just for a moment, it was just the two of us, orbiting each other in our own little universe.  In fact, I always knew my father was her only sun; her only True North.  I sometimes roll my eyes and say, with some degree of exasperation, “she’d walk off a cliff if he told her too.”  But in the pit of my stomach, way down deep where I’m most honest, the chilling truth of the matter is I’m not joking.  He just hasn’t yet asked.

I never felt like my mom would choose me over my father.  In fact, I can think of only one crystal-clear moment when our needs were put in front of his.  In a terrifying plane ride, in which my mentally ill father was flying his small, personal aircraft higher and higher in an attempt to evade the military jets he believed to be trailing him, she saw my brother and I grow woozy from a lack of oxygen.  And she demanded he put the plane on the ground.  I can think of plenty of other moments when I craved that same feeling of safety and stability she offered in that moment.  But when I try to think about moments when mom went toe-to-toe with dad and I felt shielded and protected by her, that is the singular instance which comes to my mind.

I tell myself there must be more.  There simply must!  They must be hidden behind closed doors in my memory.  Perhaps we were shielded in that way of mothers that prevents a child from ever knowing anything was amiss.  Don’t misunderstand me: I always have known she loved me.  In fact, for most of my junior high and high school years, I believed I had an ideal home.  There were often hot-baked cookies after school, and I never recall going to bed hungry or waking up to no breakfast or opening a drawer and finding it empty of clean underwear.  I don’t remember any basic needs going unmet.  Some of my high school friends would tell you… she was enviably good at doing these things.  The resident “Mrs. Cleaver” who not only had hot cookies when you came home, but would happily make a different sort if someone happened to say they didn’t like raisins in their oatmeal cookies.

And I do have happy memories… picking out fabrics together in Wal-Mart and she sewing up my designs for throw pillows for my new dorm room bed.  Making baby leg warmers together out of knee high socks for Cora.  Last week, I pulled out a recipe book she assembled for me… hand-written favorites from family and friends.  And the tears burn my eyes even as I think about these memories. I miss who I wanted her to be.  Because here it is: demonstrating love and care isn’t the same as deep connection.  And outside of a few moments, I never felt connected to her because she only had room for my dad…

I remember one time I was having trouble with friends at school.  My mom suggested I call my grandmother in Washington to talk about it.  At the time, I thought nothing of such a suggestion.  It was normal and to this day, when I’m having a hard time and I just need to feel safe and loved and heard, I call my grandma. (The fact that I can still do this in my late-thirties is one of the greatest blessings in my life.)  But having daughters of my own now, I know if we were in the same situation, I’d pull out a favorite blanket, snuggle close to them on the couch and ask them how they’re feeling.  Even when it came to the more trivial, I knew my mom wouldn’t keep a secret from my dad, so my solution was to never share things I didn’t want my dad to know… as a result, we didn’t talk too much about my burgeoning interest in makeup, boys, my period, or really any other feminine right of passage in my early teen years.  In fact, she heard about my relationship with Jacob, my first and only boyfriend, from a friend at least 6 months after we started dating.

These memories lead me down an aching path of wishing I’d had the kind of mother my daughter believes she has.  Because truth be told, I so often feel like I don’t have the skillset for this parenting gig.  As I watch my friends parent, it seems so many draw from deep, deep reserves… reserves formed throughout their childhoods in relationship with stable, emotionally-present (not perfect) parents.  And these days, many of them even pick up the phone when they have a question.  (I know I’m probably overstating what this relationship is like for many adults.  But it’s the truth of how I feel.)

As I think about my lack and their plenty, scarcity morphs to fear and it curls around my throat.  If I don’t have those reserves, what might I be lacking?  What are my girls missing?  I can “meet needs” with the best of them, but how do I develop an emotionally intimate relationship with my daughters when I never had one with my own mom?

And then I find myself riding the seas of the most complex emotions imaginable when it comes to my mom.  Anger. Why is she so weak?  Why does she let him dictate every step of her life?  Abandonment.  Were my brothers and me not worth standing on her own two feet?  What kind of mother chooses her husband over her children?  Sadness.  She must feel so alone and broken and sad.  The loneliness must feel like the edge of a looming dark, dark pit… God, please keep her from falling in.  Grief over the profound loss.  Who was my mom?  Did I ever really know HER?  Why can’t I remember?  What would it have been like to have the kind of mom my daughter believes me to be?  Confusion.  What happened to her to make her like this?  I know she wants our relationship to be different too.  Why can’t we figure out a way to get back to each other?

It took me nearly a year and a half of counseling to arrive at this heartbreaking reality:  Truth be told, I don’t miss the mother I lost 3 years ago very much.  That woman, in all her complexity and woundedness, demanded we lay down all our lives at the feet of her husband, my father, and I still can’t bare to go back into that relationship on those terms.

But I deeply miss the mom I wish I had.

I missed and I miss having a mom who made me feel safe.
I missed and I miss having a mom who made me feel heard.
I missed and I miss having a mom who knew who she was and let me in so I could know that woman too.

It was never about the cookies. The wave of grief crashes and I ride it down.  But then I’m coming up for air.  And as undeniable as the brokenness is, the tenderness of God is equally apparent.  I have felt the mother-heart-of-God filling in my empty spaces and cracks.  The empty space of “the mother I never had” has been filled by the tangible presence of my grandma and my mother-in-law and my aunts and my girlfriends and a small army of church ladies who welcomed me with open arms and open hearts.  It may not be my mom, but these are the women I can call or text when I need parenting advice or a recipe for brownies or just to cry and pray my way through hard things.  The empty space of not knowing what it felt like to have a deep mother/daughter connection is being filled with my own two daughters.  If this kind of connection is like a beautiful footpath connecting two isolated mountain towns, I’m still seeing all the beauty.  I’m just starting on the other end.

Mother’s Day is such a complex day.  All it takes is watching someone in the greeting card aisle to realize how complicated this day is.  We pick up card after card, struggling to know what to say when greeting card words transform complex, multidimensional people — with wounds and grief and sorrow and loss and failures and joys and hopes and fears who still did their best — into flat categories.

I’d be ok if we skipped Mother’s Day entirely.

It’s a day of unmet expectations (AKA premeditated resentments) for so many women who still find themselves with the same hungry children, the same dirty dishes, and the same laundry piles they face every other day of the week.  It’s a day of deep sorrow and longing for women who’ve never heard anyone call them mama or for mamas who lost their babies too soon.  And then there are all of us grown-up-children avoiding greeting card aisles… whether you’re missing the mother you never had or the one who was gone too soon, Mother’s Day can feel like peeling a scab off a wound.  Truth be told, so many of us dance between several of these roles today.  I’m a mom who nurses her own “mother-wounds” and feels the loss extra keenly today.  I’m also the mom who is celebrated and showered in hugs and kisses, and I’m the mom who doesn’t get a “day off” from this thing we call life.

In the midst of it all, here’s what I know to be true: Today is hard.  I miss my mama.  I wish we could go back to the very beginning and start over.  I wish she could have been something more to me.  My own girls are little right now and still believe me to be “the best mom in the world.”  At one time, I believed the same thing to be true of my mama.  But sometimes I’m mean and sometimes I’m selfish and sometimes I check-out and can’t give them what they need.  And someday I’m going to transform in their eyes from this flat, one-dimensional “best mom in the world” to a complicated woman with sorrows and losses and failures who still did her best.  And I hope in that moment, when they remember their childhood and weigh it all, they’ll remember how much I loved them.  I hope it’s enough.

And it is.  I know deep down it will be.

Because even in my own story, it’s enough.  Enough isn’t always what we want, though, is it?  We want more.  So mom, if you ever read this.  I want you to know everything I’ve said here is true.  I wish we’d had something more.  But it’s OK.  You did your best and you gave it your all and to this day, when I think of your enchiladas, I feel that warm feeling of home creep through my bones.  And it is enough.  Certainly not all that either of us wanted.  But it is enough.  You were enough.  If I’ve learned anything in my parenting journey so far, it’s that God is always multiplying my paltry loaves and fishes into plenty.  I offer what I can, and somehow he has transformed it into enough for my girls.  And you undoubtedly offered what you could, and he transformed it into enough for me.

I’m not going to lie: On days like today I shake my fists at the sky and I wish it were more.  But I’m ok.  I’m walking through life with a limp and a broken place in my heart, and I know you are too.  But I love me.  I love the woman I’m becoming, in all my complexity and brokenness.  And in some ways, I’m starting to see it’s these wounds that make me who I am, so how could I despise them?  How could I despise you?  I hope the same for you.  I hope you can love you.  Someday we’ll both be whole again.  Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.  Love ya.

God in the Mending

A few days ago, I had an hour between meetings and a friend who needed to talk.  She and her family have been going through life as we all do, with a carefully crafted “to-do” list of the beautiful mundane that you don’t really miss until it’s gone.  Grocery store runs because you forgot the milk the day before, supplies for the school project that you really think shouldn’t be attempted the last month of school, a gift for teacher appreciation (is there anything worthy?!)… it’s all on “the list” until one day something drops into your life and “the list” is crushed under the tyranny of the unexpected and urgent.

Suddenly all the little things that once filled our days — things we resented and rolled our eyes at and sighed our way through — these little things look like gifts through a different light.  And though we have many choices about how we want to walk through whatever is up ahead, going back to the beautiful mundane… our peaceful little ordinary lives we didn’t even treat as the gift that they were… well, going back isn’t one of our options.  The path is different, now, and it feels more like stumbling in the darkness.

And so it was in one of these moments that I met my friend.  She agreed to meet me at my church (where I work part-time) in that hour between meetings, and when she arrived she sent me a short text: “I’m in the sanctuary.”  I opened the heavy wooden doors to the sanctuary to go and find her, and though the lights were all off, I stepped into the warm-glow of light streaming through the walls of stained glass windows.  I’ve seen these windows a hundred times before, but maybe because I was thinking about how shattered my friend’s life felt, I saw the glass in a different way and one clear thought resonated through my mind.

It wouldn’t be so beautiful if not for all the little broken pieces.

And it’s more than that, really.  The light wouldn’t be so beautiful if it didn’t shine through the darkness. The seams of black twisting and turning their way through the glass serve as both the glue and the division.  Up close it’s impossible to make sense of the twists and turns and think they bring anything other than disruption to a piece of smooth glass.


And suddenly a new image forms in my mind… ice-skating on these sheets of calm, gentle glass.  Each of us dancing and twirling and coasting our way along on our own peaceful sheet, beautiful and vibrant in its simplicity.  Yours is red.  Mine is blue.  And though sometimes we get a little bored and sigh at the monotony of it all, deep down we wish we could do this forever.  Coast. Slide. Smooth-sailing.

But in the time it takes to breathe, everything changes.  The sheet of glass shatters.  My husband and I sat on the back porch watching the sky glow pink as the sun sank below the horizon a few nights ago.  We’d just finished another day of this beautiful ordinary, but we both felt the weight of how fragile this all is.  One week and three different acquaintances with three vastly different tragedies.  A sudden death. A traumatic injury. Unexpected legal problems.  “We’re all so close to the edge,” he said as he shook his head.  And deep down we all know this is true.  And so we do what we can to stay in the middle of the glass.  No sky-diving.  Wear your seatbelts.  Don’t run the red light.  Eat your veggies and take your vitamins.  Be careful now.  Stay over here where it’s safer.  We skate and we skate and we skate and sometimes we wonder how much longer we get to have an unbroken sheet of glass; keenly aware that all our efforts at staying safe can end in the time it takes to breathe.  So we hold our breath, bracing for the moment when it shatters.

And it does.  It always does.  And we can shake our hands at the heavens and scream “Why God?”  We can craft careful theologies that indict God as the perpetrator of our pain in our attempts to shore up our belief that he’s in control of everything.  We can buy plaques and coffee mugs and cards that give us warm fuzzy feelings but no real comfort.  We can say nice things meant to comfort and not realize they only wound.  “I guess heaven needed another angel.”  “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Or we can wait.  Sometimes we don’t need to get back up and brush ourselves off.  Sometimes we need to sit and mourn in the middle of the broken glass.  Lament.  Remember and grieve.  We need to be able to ask “Why God” and not have any well-meaning but empty answers… we need to sit in the middle of the sheet of broken glass with the pain and sadness and wait.

When we look for God in these moments, let’s not expect to find him with a hammer in his hands.  He’s there with us, of course.  He’s always with us.  But we’ll find him in the mending. 

And mending is slow work.  It takes time. I picture a stain-glass artist at work.  He carefully gathers up my broken pieces.  His workbench covered in sharp shards of broken stories.  And he starts his work.  A bit of your pain meets a bit of mine.  A bit of mine reaches out to some of hers.  We fit together and he joins the seams.  We become stronger in these once-broken places, drawing stability and courage and finding our feet as we link arms with those around us.  My most fragile point, the little bit that protrudes and makes me feel most vulnerable… he fits it in the perfect place, buffered between two others who have space for my vulnerability.  The work continues, and sometimes it hurts as edges are softened and filed to allow for the fitting.  And it all still looks like utter chaos right now — just a mess of little broken pieces; each one finding a bit of connection, maybe, but still floating unmoored, uncertain what the future looks like.  Each one bravely waiting.

Slowly it takes shape.  There is beauty and purpose here; patterns of restoration which in time will result in a masterful work of art more beautiful and more richly complex than the singular sheet of smooth glass ever could’ve been.  (This isn’t to say we end up grateful for the breaking.  Some things that shatter are so precious we can never recall the loss without grief seizing tight over our throats, and that’s as it should be.  Stained glass shows us we can live in the dark and light space of both/and; both make it beautiful.)

There’s a popular pop song with the line “no scars to your beautiful.”  And while I love the message of the song, I don’t think this is true.  Look at stained glass and see the truth: it’s the scars that make it beautiful.  It’s the scars that take two precipitous edges — the raw places of our wounding and loss and the very edges we worried we’d tumble over into utter oblivion — and brings them back together into something that looks like wholeness and tells a story of bravery and transformation.

So let’s breathe.

Not because everything is going to be ok.  Sometimes it isn’t, of course.  Things shatter.  But we can trust God is always in the mending, and he only makes beautiful things.  There are scars to our beautiful; no need to hide them.  The scars connect us and help to tell a story bigger and more beautiful than any we could tell on our own.  They bring order out of despair and something new out of what we thought might be lost forever.  These scars are marks of healing, and when the light shines through, it’s the scars and all the broken pieces that make us shine.

On Mooncakes, Brokenness, and Belonging

First appeared at No Hands But Ours.

It’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in the land where you were born, Alea, and one thought keeps running through my head: My favorite moons are the perfect crescents your eyes make when you are happy and your face crinkles with joy. You are beautiful, child, inside and out — pure light, like the fullest of moons on the darkest of nights. When I see you, with your raven-black hair and porcelain skin and moon-shaped eyes, I see perfection.

But I can’t make you see that. And suddenly what you seem to notice more than anything is your difference. In a room full of Chinese people yesterday, you made it clear you didn’t think you were one of them, and my heart shattered into a million little pieces.

Have I failed to explain that your Chinese DNA is part of what makes you precious to me?
That I see a reflection of my heart in the gentle moon of your eyes?
We really do look like one another, darling… how do I help you see the truth of yourself?
To see your beauty?

It’s tricky, this road we are all on. Yesterday Cora’s friend made a passing comment in innocence — not cruelty — but it still stung: “She’s not your real sister,” the girl said, her own experience based on a stair-step of little brothers who mirror her own face right down to their tussled blonde hair and sweet curved noses. When we got home, Cora said it made her feel angry and sad to hear that, and she didn’t know what to say. And I realized it isn’t the first time she’s experienced this sort of thing; just the first time I’ve found out.

We talked about what makes a sister real and how some people don’t understand because they’ve only known one way of becoming a family. But it still hurts, I know; and hurt so often slips to shame…

Cora, when we signed you up to have a sister of a different race, it meant you were thrown into new and unusual situations for which there isn’t a clear playbook. My brave and tender-hearted girl, how do I help you learn how to play this game with dignity, compassion, and confidence?

It turns out four years old is old enough to notice you don’t match your family and six years old is old enough to understand what happens before an adoption isn’t usually beautiful and happy, and what happens in its aftermath isn’t always either. It turns out four and six year olds can weep with sorrow at injustice and brokenness and ache to belong. And a mama can feel turned inside out.

This is when it all gets messy, my girls, and I don’t feel strong enough or wise enough for this journey we’re on together. There’s so much I don’t know. I don’t know how to help either of you navigate the road ahead.

Alea, I don’t know how to make you feel proud of the curve of your eyes, the shape of your nose, the hue of your hair. I confess I wonder if, as a white woman, I have what it takes to raise a confident, comfortable-in-her-skin Asian woman.

And Cora, I don’t have the answers to your questions about why Jesus allows babies to be broken apart from their first mamas; why they are sometimes left in “boxes in the rain” as you say you saw on a TV show once.

“And since I know adoption is real, Mama, I know that must be real, too,” you sobbed as the rain pounded against the bedroom window.

“Was Alea left in the rain, Mama? Was she?!? It’s scary!”

Your voice cracked in half, equal parts terror and sorrow, and I couldn’t hold back the tears myself… both because it hurts to watch your innocent heart get split plumb open, and because I don’t know the answer.

And it feels like, as your Mama, I ought to know more about that day. Though it makes no sense to say, it feels like I ought to have been there on that day. I want to tell both of you that everything’s going to be ok, but the story of our lives coming together means you both already realize sometimes it isn’t.

I can’t be there in all the broken moments. Cora, I can’t be by your side to speak up every time someone calls the legitimacy of your relationship with your sister into question or mocks her for the ways in which she is different. Alea, I can’t be with you to help you hold your head high the first time a child stretches her eyes thin on a playground and laughs in your face. I can’t protect you from the sting of racism.

I know every mother wants to shield her children from pain and sorrow, and every mother must reckon with the reality that she cannot. I’m no different.

Here’s all I have to give you… When the Autumn moon is high and round, it’s a time to reconnect with family and celebrate connection. And this family of ours? It’s as “real” as real can get. It is messy and sometimes we have tears in our eyes and broken pieces in our hands, but we are a family.

We are patchwork and once-broken-but-now-glued-together vases, and it’s beautiful in its own way. Perhaps we don’t fit very well… we aren’t quite “traditional white American,” and we certainly don’t pass for Chinese, and so I think we all have to get comfortable with always being just a little different. But we are in it together, and that’s all I know to give you. In the end though, I also think it’s the only thing that really carries any of us through. This togetherness, with-ness bearing witness in the middle of the mess.

So for Mid-Autumn festival, we made mooncakes. Not in the traditional way, because I neither have the skill nor the taste for them. But we made them in a way that reflects our family hodgepodge. Thanks to a tip from another adoptive mom, we made shortbread; a western cookie pressed and formed into beautiful Chinese molds… a little bit of two different worlds but still perfectly us.

And Alea, I want you to know we don’t do this because I think you need to absorb a different legacy from the rest of us. Of course, I want you to treasure and understand the history and culture of the land woven into your blood. But that’s not why I do this. If it’s in your blood, it’s in my own, and we do this because this is now our family legacy. It’s part of the story of us, and we celebrate not for your sake but for all of our sakes. This is the shape of our family now, and I believe that deserves remembering and celebrating and honoring.

This life is messy, my girls. When you’re figuring out the shape of yourself, you’ll end up with plenty of flour on your hands and in your hair, and sometimes you’ll feel fragile and not quite ready for the world yet. Sometimes your wing might get bent or a piece might get broken. In their rush to make you fit a mold, someone might crush a little part of you.

But come on home when that happens. It’s safe here, and you’ll always belong. I’ll do my best to help you mend. I know a thing or two about taking broken pieces and gluing them back together to make a family. I know a thing or two about finding beauty in scars and strength in the once-fractured places. I believe we can be stronger in the mended places and more beautiful for having been broken.

We may not look like the other families around us; it may not feel like you fit the mold very well and it hurts to be on the outside, I know. But we are in this together, and this family of ours is exactly the shape God intended us to be when He put the broken pieces back together, and that’s as real as real can be.

We will find our way together in the darkness, under the light of an enormously bright Mid-Autumn Moon.

(And if nothing else, we can always make cookies.)

Custom-Made Callings

pexels-photo-461035.jpegWe cleaned out our spare bedroom this weekend.  It’s a room we’ve used as a defacto second living area these last couple of years. With our computer desk and a small table for the girls, it’s the room with the crayons and the scissors and the space on the floor to read books or play board games.  Among our family, three-fourths of us use this room to fulfill our need for some time alone to recharge and ready ourselves for the noise on the outside.  (This is, of course, a delicate dance, since one-fourth of our little family feels this always as a personal rejection.)

But seasons are changing.  We moved the computer desk to our bedroom.  And we moved the art table to the girls’ room.  And we threw away some things and reorganized some other things and wondered again why we have so much stuff and before long, the mess cleared and there was a big open space in the little room.

Room for another.

And yesterday afternoon, another arrived.  Our dear friend Du — who is more like my third daughter than my friend (though I’d like to think I’m not really old enough for that) — is moving in with us.  She’s starting PA school at the end of the month here in Midland, and simultaneously her family moved to other areas of the country to pursue small business ventures.  Thanks to another oil boom and a chronic housing shortage, rent in Midland is exorbitantly expensive.  (“On not getting by in a rich town” could be a whole other series of essays.)  Rent here is the highest in the state… far higher than a full-time student can reasonably manage.  While I’m sure Du could live with another family from her refugee community, I know the close proximity would inevitably mean she’s being asked to help translate for someone at the hospital when she should be studying for a final exam.  And the cultural factors at play would mean it’s nearly impossible for her to turn them down.  It’d be enough to give me a nervous breakdown if I were in her shoes…

So we asked her to come stay with us!  And selfishly, there are other reasons I want her here.  Sometimes Jacob works a lot, and when his schedule turns insane it will be nice to have another grown-up in the house.  I feel like Alea needs more opportunities to look around and not be the only Asian in the room.   Du is the perfect role model for my girls.  And quite simply, we love Du.  She fits perfectly with us.

We met when she was about 16.  If you’ve known me for a long time, you might remember our business Scarlet Threads and how we started working with refugee women in our community to make quilts and children’s clothing.  Well, Du’s mom Aye was one of our first seamstresses, and Du, a high school student at the time, became our translator when she had free time.  Her family is from Myanmar and they are part of the Chin minority group.  And though Du’s story is not mine to tell, it is one of great adversity, unbelievable bravery, sheer grit, and focused determination.  When I say her life (and those of her family) could be a movie, I’m really not kidding.

In short, I’m her biggest fan and I’m excited we’re going to have more time together, even if it is just in the margins and space of two busy lives moving in two different directions.  Jacob cares for Du as much Bas I do, and one of my favorite things about my husband is his generous and kind heart.  It goes far deeper than mine, truthfully… but it’s under a lot of quiet layers so most people never see it.  My girls are also excited to have someone else moving in with us.  They’ve already scoped out her collection of fancy high heels and are dying to try them out.  All that being said, I know there are going to be times when it might be challenging for all involved to have an extra person in our rather cozy little house or, in her case, to join a family with significantly different habits and customs.

But, challenging at times or not, I know it will be good.  And in some ways, we also did this for our girls.  If there’s another seat at your table, ask someone to dinner.  If you have a spare room, consider filling it.  If you have plenty, share.  If we want our kids to really “get” these things, they can’t be intangible lessons that we just discuss.  We can’t talk about how we “should” share our belongings and then not really do it… or worse yet, only give away what we don’t want anymore.  We can’t talk about how we “should” be hospitable… but then wait until “someday” when we have a bigger table or the dining room finally gets painted or we have matching service for a party of 15.  After all, if God is in the present moment, then his invitations for us are found here too.  I want my girls to grow up knowing that.

There is, of course, more than one way to skin a cat as they say.  (Seriously though, who said that?!) And there’s more than one way to teach our children how to respond to God’s invitations in the present moment.

I have friends who are foster families and run foster care ministries right now.  They open their homes — and introduce their kids — to a string of vulnerable children who need a place to stay.  I have nothing but mad respect for their sacrifice and choice and intentionality.  Sometimes I look at them and “should” on myself for not following suit.  You should do that, Carrie.  You have room for another child. But truth be told, I also think in this season of our life, foster care wouldn’t be in the best interest of our particular kiddos or be a good fit for the unique shape and challenges of our family.

I have another friend whose family has moved from their home into a tiny house as they launch a ministry to the homeless in our area.  As I wonder where we’re going to fit this extra side-table we just moved out of Du’s room and longingly wish for just a few more square feet, I have nothing but mad respect for their simplicity and minimalism and sacrifice.  Sometimes I look at them and “should” on myself for not following suit.  You should do that, Carrie.  Get rid of all this crap and be less encumbered by stuff.  But truth be told, I also think in this season of our life, I feel a deep call towards cultivating a home that’s a safe refuge not just for our little family but for others who may need space to breathe and a place to rest. I want to create a place that says “There’s room for you here” — a shelter that embodies this picture from Colossians:

“So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding.  Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the Cross.” Colossians 1:19-20, MSG

And you might hear my story about Du and start “shoulding” on yourself and think, “Gosh!  Maybe I should find a college student and give them a place to live?  Maybe I should have a refugee move in with me?”

No, that’s not the point.  I mean, it might be – but that’s between you and God and not the point of this essay.

So often we take the good things God has uniquely shaped for others, crafted just for them like well-tailored coats and dresses, and we try to step into them.  We suck and wiggle and twist and hold our breath thinking, “I can fit if I just don’t move.”  And instead of feeling joy at seeing the beautiful garment God made for our friend — a custom-made calling — we feel shame that ours doesn’t look the same.

But what if that’s not it at all?  Have you ever considered that — while never easy or sacrifice-free — the adventures God invites you on aren’t designed to make you miserable?  They aren’t “heavy or ill-fitting.” (Matthew 11:28)  Having Du move in with us doesn’t feel like a “sacrifice” or a “good deed” to our family. It feels natural and right and healthy and whole.  It feels like life in all its fullness and joy.  Even though nothing in life is mess-free or uncomplicated, and I don’t expect this to be without its hiccups, in the balance I know this is a decision that will bring good things to each of us – Du, me, Jacob, Cora, Alea, and even LeLe.  (Who always wishes there were more people around to scratch her belly.)

Sometimes I imagine what the world would look like if we didn’t “should” on ourselves but instead looked for ways to naturally and authentically live into the calling God has put on each of our lives to be “repairers of the breach and restorers of streets with dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:12)  What if we celebrated the way God is moving in each other’s lives.  And then, if we feel the Spirit prompting us in any way at all as we observe his movement in the lives of those around us, we looked for the places where he might be inviting us to step out and join him on a new adventure in our own life.  In a world with so many different needs, the last thing we need is everyone trying to respond to the same one.

So in the months to come, if you see another person in our family photos… celebrate with us!  But don’t “should” on yourself.  Instead, share with me stories of the adventures God has invited you on… it may be in ordinary places and spaces or it may be something grand and exciting.  And if you’re a parent, share with me how those journeys are shaping your children.  If I’ve learned one thing so far in life, it may not be easy and carefree to step into these adventures, but they always bring deep abiding joy (maybe not always immediate happiness), a fullness of life, and peace… even as they stretch and pull and reshape us.

“So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding” … there’s room for each of us and each of us to say a unique “yes.”  There’s a  custom-made calling for each of us, and it’s found exactly where we are.


Drawing a Wider Circle

This post first appeared at No Hands But Ours.

I met Heba in a park a few months after we brought our youngest daughter home from China. I didn’t notice her playing with her young daughters, even though under normal circumstances I probably would have. I’ve always been drawn to people from other cultures and backgrounds, and her musical Arabic would have captured my attention had I not been so immersed in my own world of desperately trying to help a grieving, sick, and overwhelmed little girl learn that I was Mama and somehow comprehend that I was safe and could be trusted.

But Heba noticed me. She walked up to me smiling broadly and told me she liked my skirt. I wearily smiled, thanked her, and didn’t reciprocate conversationally in any way. In fact, I think I moved to another area of the playground. A few minutes later, she wandered over and asked me how old my daughters were. “Almost four and almost two,” I said, quickly walking away again.

To be honest, usually I’m far more outgoing. But I felt like life was quicksand and I was sinking, and I didn’t have any extra emotional energy to invest in new friendships. If my memory serves, she had to try at least once more to strike up a conversation with me. And this time I found my manners and asked her about her family and where she was from. Before we left the park, I’d learned her daughters were almost the same age as my girls, she was from Egypt, and I was going to her house for tea a few days later.

Months later, after we were fast friends and could speak more frankly with one another, I asked Heba why she had been so persistent with me in the park that day. I’d brushed her off at least twice and certainly wasn’t brimming with friendliness. Had the shoes been reversed, I don’t think I would have deemed her friend material. Her answer to my question first opened my eyes to an aspect of adoption I hadn’t yet considered, “I saw your daughter Alea and knew you must be a person with an open heart, and I needed a friend.”

///I’ve thought a lot about Heba’s response this last year. I hadn’t considered it much until now because for those first couple of years after we got home, I didn’t have the luxury of mental space for deep pondering. We were in survival mode on several life fronts, and all I had the capacity to think about was the current crisis. (You may be there now, and if so this post isn’t really for you yet. Hunker down, sister, and you’ll get through the storm.) But over this last year in particular, as we’ve settled into more comfortable family rhythms, I’ve been pondering what adoption means in our life. And as the world outside the walls of our home seems to grow more divided and chaotic, I keep coming back to Heba’s response.

Heba is an Arabic Muslim woman in a predominantly Christian and deeply conservative small West Texas town. Although her experience has been largely positive, I know it can’t always be an easy place to be who she is. At a very minimum, it can be isolating to be of a different faith in a town where community belonging is still strongly tied to church membership. By many counts, she is an outsider – different country of origin, different native tongue, different religion, and different customs. And as an outsider-looking-for-a-friend, she picked me. She picked me because she saw I had claimed a former-outsider as my daughter. Though she knew nothing else about me, the fact that the circle of my family had been drawn wide gave her reason to believe I would be safe.

///What if being an adoptive family is about so much more than giving a child a home and growing the number of people who will hopefully someday gather around our Thanksgiving tables? In her new book which releases August 17, “Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World,” Kelley Nikondeha draws a more vibrant view of adoption than simply what happens when an orphaned child is claimed by a family. In a world fractured by war, fear of ‘the other’ and tribalism, she explores how the ripple effects of adoption – things like hospitality, cultivating belonging, radical welcome, and protection of the vulnerable — can transform broken communities and lives and reflect God’s coming kingdom. “Adoption is one way we dare to stitch the world back together. It offers a needle and thread to begin the mending. We cannot mend all the wounds, gather all the fragments scattered around war zones and orphanages and underserved neighborhoods – but we do what we can with each stitch,” Kelley says.

I think many of us live on the fringes of the fullness of what this may mean. Like I said, I’ve spent most of the last few years knee-deep in parenting-help books that lean heavy towards attachment. (Love me some Dr. Purvis.) If you’re like me, when I think about adoption, I’ve tended to think about the daily reality of knitting a child from a hard place into our family… not about what it might mean in other areas of my life. But that’s starting to change, and thanks to Kelley’s book, I now have some structure around which I can see the disparate parts of my life becoming connected and whole.

And wholeness looks like a wider circle.

After meeting in the park two years ago, Heba and I started having dinners that quickly morphed from 2 people to 3 to 10 to a loosely organized International Women’s Group that now has over 200 members. We meet monthly for coffee and conversation and together we make reusable feminine hygiene kits for girls growing up in developing countries, fighting against isolation and keeping girls in school. In our circle, we have women from at least 5 different faith traditions, close to 20 countries and more languages than I can count. It’s a beautifully wide circle.

Adoption isn’t a common theme in our international group – so I know being an adoptive family isn’t the only way to develop a perspective that embraces difference with curiosity and compassion and genuine love. But it has been a significant part of my journey, and so Kelley’s words ring deeply true. For the most part, she says, we humans tend to “behave like we’re different species instead of fellow siblings in God’s wide family.” But adoption tells a different story. Adoptive families can “cultivate belonging with anyone unlike us because we know that it’s always possible to graft someone into our family tree. Point us to the arid places, and we will break the ground and plow it toward connection and kinship. It is our superpower.”

I’m not suggesting that adoption will lead each of us to draw the same wider circle – yours may lead you into your inner city or public school instead of into an international community. But what I do think, and what Kelley so beautifully articulates, is that God cultivates a unique perspective on what it means to belong within adoptive families. And it isn’t just unique – it looks a lot like His heart, and put into practice, it looks like God’s kingdom unleashed in the here and now.

One of the things Kelley’s words emboldened me to recognize is that adoption has changed me from the inside out, and it isn’t just about my parenting. It has helped me recognize that any child could be my child, any outsider could be part of my circle, and any unloved person could be part of my family.

Can you imagine the healing love that could be unleashed upon the world if we each turned our adoptive hearts outward, extending their impact far beyond the boundaries of our families?

I think that would look like God’s kingdom come.

Though some of my favorite parts of the book centered on how a life transformed by adoption can give life to other barren and broken wastelands in this world, this book is by no means primarily about taking the lessons of adoption and applying them to other areas. It’s also a beautiful look at the heart of adoption. As both an adoptee and an adoptive mother, Kelley speaks eloquently and with tender wisdom and vulnerable insight into so many aspects of adoption, including the harder sides like loss and relinquishment, grief, unrequited affection and attachment struggles, and the sometimes unanswerable questions about first families.

And as she tackles these issues, she weaves in stories from scripture, tracing themes of adoption from Moses to Jesus, with many stops in between. And this is no fluffy, feel-good theology of adoption. It isn’t so heavy on the redemption that it doesn’t count the cost. Unlike many theologians (armchair or otherwise), when Kelley talks about how we are all adopted children of God and how adoption is a beautiful earthly picture of a scriptural truth, she doesn’t gloss over the pain of its beginnings. She looks loss, tragedy, and the severe injustice that sometimes leads to relinquishment square in the eye and invites us to do the same. This is a far messier theology, and some ends don’t tie up nicely and neatly, but I’m grateful to be reminded that grace can be gritty, and it’s never cheap.

In short, if you’re looking for a book to wrap up your summer reading list, please pick up a copy of Kelley Nikondeha’s book “Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World.” And let her words wash over you and empower you to take your love out into this fractured world we all call home. I don’t think this means we have to add more obligations to our “to do” lists.

Whether we are sitting beside our children’s hospital beds or ferrying our kids to and from activities, if adoption marks us as people with open hearts, as my friend Heba says, may we live like them – listening to the Spirit’s promptings and cultivating belonging wherever we go.

A Semi-Truck Safety Net

detroit police
Image Credit: MSP Metro Detroit

Somewhere in the darkness of that bridge stood a man.  We can’t see him in the picture.  But isn’t that so often the case?  Sometimes we don’t notice the desperate ones until it’s too late.

But he’s there nonetheless. His knuckles white against the concrete barrier and his toes pushing little pebbles over the edge.  As the cars rushed by below, I imagine he watches the pebbles shower their windshields.  Did he wonder if anyone even noticed?

Frenetic.  Frantic.  Fast lane life.  Moving so quickly we barely notice when the rain is replaced with the softest showering of rock.  Something’s out of place.  Someone’s out of place.  But if we keep moving, we miss it.

He stands on that bridge and believes himself to be alone.  Cigna just announced 48 percent of us feel lonely.  The loneliest among us?  The youngest in the survey group… Generation Z.  18 to 22 year olds.  They didn’t survey children, but it’s enough to make one wonder where we’re headed.  Each generation lonelier than the last.  Generation X, Y, Z… stepping further and further down into disconnection and social isolation.  What comes next?  There’s not even a letter of the alphabet left to name them.  Emptiness.  Blackness.  Loneliness.

Loneliness may not be the only reason someone stumbles onto a bridge above a whizzing, whirling freeway with every intention of stepping off.  But it must be one of the dark and quiet voices that draws you out.  Draws you in.  Deeper into the darkness.  Closer to the edge.

But this time, someone sees.  They look up.  They look out.  They notice!  With the police called and the freeway closed, the coaxing begins.  You aren’t alone.  In the four hours it took to get him to step back, undoubtedly the police said it in a hundred different ways a hundred times.  But shining light in the darkness can be slow work and we all know our words don’t matter as much as our actions.

And how do you really tell someone they are never alone?  You say “I’ll catch you if you jump.”

Thirteen trucks stopped.  They all had somewhere to be by dawn, but they stopped their frenetic, frantic activity.  They came out of the darkness, circled up and literally created a safety net out of the only thing they had to offer: their livelihood, their energy, their time.  They said – not just with words, but in deed – I see you.  You aren’t alone.

And isn’t this what we all need?  Even if we aren’t on the edge of an actual bridge, we don’t need someone to tell us how we “should” feel.  We don’t usually rationalize our way back from the edge.  We need to know someone’s going to catch us even if we jump.  When one of us is in a dark place, swallowed up by a thick inky blackness that’s slowly smothering the very spark of life burning in our heart, we can only back away from the edge and come up for air when we know, deep down in our bones, no matter what we are wanted and valued… we are precious in His sight.

The picture of those trucks lined up under the freeway is a picture of God’s kingdom to me.  Your kingdom come, your will be done.  On earth as it is in heaven.

No one interviewed this guy on the bridge and asked for his resume before they stopped what they were doing and lined up their trucks.  No one asked what accomplishments he had achieved or whether or not he still called his grandma on Sunday afternoons.  No one asked if he’d ever been to prison, held a steady job, or paid his bills on time.  They didn’t ask because, truth be told, deep down we know none of this matters.  No matter what, his life has value.

And that no matter whatness comes straight from the heart of God.  Father Greg Boyle says it best, I think, in his book Tattoos on the Heart:

“The ‘no matter whatness’ of God dissolves the toxicity of shame and fills us with tender mercy. Favorable, finally, and called by name – by the one your mom uses when she’s not pissed off.”

No matter what, you aren’t alone.

No matter what, you are loved.

No matter what, your name is written on the palm of his hands. (Isaiah 49:16)

And there’s not one among us not worth a safety net made of semi-trucks.