Friends, this post is long... like making-up-for-lost-time long...like more-of-a-chapter-than-a-blog-post long, and I apologize (kind of) for the length. I really feel desperately that I need to post it anyway and I ask if you'll give me the grace of getting through it because I think this message is a good one for us all this week. There are some things around here knocking my socks off... things I believe truly will rock your world, too, if you soak it in. So go get a coffee refill and stay with me in this, if you can...come back to it if you have to. Thanks for trusting me, for getting through my wordiness and letting me unravel the beautiful, terrible mysteries I'm drifting through these days.
I haven't been writing much lately—not here anyway, and I'm sorry for that.
It's not for lack of trying. I've sat down at my keyboard dozens of times this week and the last one and the one before that to keep this space current and relevant and real. What happens, though, is that no matter what I set out to write, it all ends up coming out something like this:
"This is hard. This is hard. This is hard. Joy is here. God is good. He is teaching me so much. And oh, yeah… did I mention? This is hard. "
It's true of course. This is hard. God is good. And He is teaching me measure upon measure more than I ever dreamed this season would be about. I am learning dependence and how gratitude can overcome attitude. I am learning about love in action when the feeling of love is elusive.
I am learning about what importance and success look like in the Kingdom, and how wrong I've had it all this time. I am learning about need, about nourishment, about food and laughter and organization and the power of a smile or a scowl, about volume and voices, love languages, trust, fear, home, and the wild and wonderful human spirit.
- I am learning that love is joy with its dish gloves on.
- I am learning that the words I grumble or yell or whisper or pray are longer lasting than the words I type, that tying up life lessons nice and pretty in a package works well on paper but doesn't serve me at all when there is poop in the sandbox or when I see my own forked-tongue wagging back at me from the mouth of my flesh-and-blood boy. I am learning that hot, silent tears into my pillowcase are a hallowed kind of prayer, and that I would be wise to utter less the phrase "Lord, give me strength" and utter more the phrase "Thank you, Lord. Give me joy." Also, that He always responds swiftly to "Help me, Help me, Help me," even if I whisper a curse word in the middle of that prayer somewhere.
- I am learning much, much, much about grace.
Overcoming my critical, complaining spirit in this means not running to my blog just to purge out the grime of the day every time I'm tempted to, even though you all take it so graciously and mold it into a golden gift through your comments and outreach and prayer. You all are my heroes and you are how I do most anything—all this inspiration I get from the people out there walking around on Jesus-feet, kissing with Jesus-lips, giving with Jesus-hands.
Having foster kids in our home these past few months has rocked us, not in a flip-our-world-upside-down sort of way, but in a gnaw-away-daily-at-our-false-ideals one. The temptation is to say that with each challenge, I am growing and loving them deeper and deeper because that's what the neat and pretty answer might look like, but that just isn't always true.
What's true is this. I still don't have a maternal instinct for these babies, not completely, and though I love them as much as I can make myself love anything, this is a hard love. It's a love that acts and does, a love that wipes and kisses, a love that moves and rocks and holds and bites its tongue, but not so much a love that feels. It's different, and I am learning, too, to be okay with different, all the while praying for a bigger heart to overflow with Jesus-love when these little faces still seem so exoteric, so marvelously foreign here.
The intimacy with which I am caring for these sort-of strangers who are also long-neglected little children means this work is mostly gross and bloody and sweaty and stinky, covered in waste that emerges from bodies I have not carried and have not watched carved by formative years of nursing and growing and living. The truth is, it often makes me wearier than I wish it did.
And though I am immune, mind and body and spirit, to whatever is produced by my own children's bodies, there is no such lack of repugnance with these children, yet. I shouldn't admit it but that's the hard work of motherhood, what biology affords us the capacity to endure out of instinct. When biology is the missing link between these strangers and myself, the already-hard stuff gets harder, if only because it is not nature but effort that drives me.
I am shamed further by the shame I feel, by the way I cringe and curl inwardly at the hazards of motherhood, the green and brown and foul-smelling things, the yucky stuff that from my own children leaves me unscathed. Per doctor's orders, I had to go out and buy a tool last week designed to excavate impacted earwax, a tool I never knew existed and have lived peacefully without for 32 years. Then, draping wriggling half-dressed children over my lap one by one, I dug deep into their oozing orifices and hummed loud to make them still and safe but also to suppress my gag reflex, to transform repulsion into grace, to remind me to find the joy here, in earwax, somewhere…in puddles of drool and vomit, in overflowed toilets, in asthma and tantrums and middle-of-the-night toddler pantry raids (not to be confused, of course, with panty raids, but with the same sort of commotion and cunning thievery involved).
I am struck by how unnatural this love can be, how the actions of what love does can sometimes be so instinctual but other times requires intense suppression of human instinct. And yet, even this unnatural and irregular love is complete and perfect love all the same, for such a time as this.
Foster parenting is, by nature, the role of coaxing a square peg into a round hole and making it as comfortable there as possible. It is oddly unnatural. Intentionally unnatural. And, challengingly unnatural for me.
- It is an unnatural love that chisels impacted sludge out of a half-naked stranger's head with a miniature plastic melon-baller and sings her quiet all the while.
- It is an unnatural love that peeks beneath peculiar habits and whispered statements to the dark underbelly of human existence and reveals the despicable truth of the trauma and turmoil which raises babies in badly broken homes.
- It is an unnatural love that attempts to explain foreskin to a puzzled preschooler who accidentally discovers anatomical differences in his same-age counterpart (a delicate and highly charged conversation to have with a boy still wearing Spiderman underpants, just a baby but already corrupted and confused by sexual abuse and body shame).
- It is an unnatural love that whispers lies to a baby for a holy purpose. Their mama won't be visiting today; she's in jail again, but their hearts can't receive the truth of this. Not yet. And sometimes, a lie can be an act of love, too.
Love so often is the tough work of exposing joy when there doesn't seem to be any.
Love can be natural or unnatural, and the tough kinds are pulled and stretched from all corners of our body and soul and spirit.
- It is hard physical work to excavate joy like I excavate earwax, digging and prying and scooping for it to make things better, to enhance my ability to listen more clearly. I round my posture and strain hard for the delicate sound of joy amidst the clamor, the wailing racket in the world all around. There is a din of falling ashes and abundant hopelessness, but I tune in careful and with clarity hone my senses to simply hearing. In doing this, I decipher a soft symphony of intricate miracles, joy's peaceable volume growing over the clatter with each passing second.
This love? This hard love... this careful, deliberate, focused, slimy and grimy, exhausting love?
It amplifies the sound of joy.
Love always amplifies joy because love teaches the lover to listen.
- It is hard mental work to locate joy when a food-obsessed toddler leaves a midnight trail of empty soda cans and potato chip bags strewn about in her wake like rubble after she cleans the cupboards bare and we are all oblivious, snoozing in spent slumber. But as tight fists unclench, I look closely and there it is...joy, giggling about the silliness of it all under a pile of granola bar wrappers.
Joy finds a pathway to humor when humor is a lifeline to grace.
(Or a pathway to chocolate. Chocolate is always a lifeline, in my book.)
- It is hard emotional work to find joy in rising anger when three sets of tiny, mighty hands demolish weeks of careful bedroom decorating in mere seconds of raucous fun. They tear curtains off walls, thrash the personalized name signs I meticulously painted for each one of them, bust closet doors, and crush the paper lanterns that once hung from the ceiling—cheerful orbs now ripped and ruined by careless, overactive play. I almost cry but I yell instead and lose my cool completely. Later, we talk about destruction and forgiveness and how wrong we each were in all of this, me especially. And we forgive.
Joy flees when anger roars but gathers at the feet of a humble lover.
- It is hard spiritual work for me to remember, minute by minute, that they are children and not just to find joy in that but to create and nourish it also with room for imagination, creation, amusement, and wonder in the bustle of passing days. I'm so often tempted to wish them into mature beings fully capable of order and reason, but joy knows better and sees clearly.
Joy in you begets joy in others, and where there is much joy, peacefulness abounds.
Though it doesn't make it any easier, I am grateful in small ways for this fissure between me and my foster children, for what is lacking here. These are not my forever babies, and my soul has not given birth to them the way it has to my others, the ones I could not bear losing like I will lose these ones, someday.
So I go about the work of stitching my heart to theirs word by word and action by action, bathtime by bedtime, meal by hug by juice cup by storybook by smile, each action another stitch in the fabric of our stories. I baste love like scar tissue over fresh wounds with wide, loose stitches. I sew loops of thread like care and clockwork with lots of open space in this tapestry of grace that covers over them, space for the tight stitches of redemption that will someday not only cover the scars but heal them also. I am leaving room for those who will come after me, the new strong embroidery of an adoptive family perhaps, or the delicate healing sutures of reformed (or, rather, reforming) biological parents.
Theirs is not a forever love within me, not a soul-birthed love like I have for my biological kids and also for our boy in
whose adoption is underway. His stitches are sewn short and tight and strong like
my others, and with the sweaty, painful work of bearing and birthing a grown-up
boy from my heart's womb with all the fight and fire and breath of bringing
forth new life—new life right out of existing blood and bones, thoughts and scars
and needs and dreams and fears…a partnership between redemption and creation, a partnership between an average family and a Divine and Holy God. I don't know why it was different for him than the others, why his love gets to be natural and permanent, except that it was designed to be. The story was already written.
And just like there are different sorts of stitches—wide and long and loose, short and tight and strong—there are different sorts of mother love, too—fierce and physical and permanent, nurturing and healing and temporary, bold and beautiful, quiet, clumsy, complicated, selfless, distant, biased, graceful… And I might exhibit a different love dynamic with each little body, each big life that passes through my care.
I see now that my work in this world, in everything, is not merely about action but first about vision, to see joy and Jesus everywhere, and then to act accordingly.
So, I seek joy...deliberately, intentionally, increasingly, I seek joy in every. little. thing.
I don't always find it. My heart gets hard and my voice gets loud and the laundry pile grows and I give way to weariness.
But I squint hard through the goggles of grace and try to be mindful if nothing else because the thing about joy is that it's really the awareness of its presence that's elusive, not joy itself. It is sometimes just a vapor, a supernatural and hazy transformation from empty to full, heavy to light, beastly to beautiful.
Sometimes it's wide right there in the open like a spring tulip, beaming bright in a child's happy smile or whispered thanks. Often though, at least for mothers, it is buried as treasure, settled hard under dirt and germy filth or else obscured and camouflaged—an optical illusion that requires a spiritual squint to recognize it hidden from sight right there in the open. Grace goggles, like paper spy glass prizes in sugary-cereal boxes, reveal the secret message in blue beneath a blur of red squiggles, beneath the ugly and exhausting work of mothering, of sustaining life every single day, all day long, again and again and again.
The secret revealed is always this:
This is hard. This is hard. This is hard.
Joy is here.
And God is good.