Thursday, November 27, 2014

Unexpected and I'm Thankful

Thanksgiving is the calendar's way of forcing us to find a few moments for introspection, specifically with regard to all that we have to be thankful for.

This time around I find myself reflecting more and more on how the trajectory of my life has been so dramatically altered over the last two years.

The journey is hardly ever a straight line...

A few months shy of two years ago, I had every intention of spending a long career in science. I had published a number of papers in good journals, including a chapter in a technical book, and I had good prospects for jobs post-graduation. The goal was a position at an undergraduate university teaching and doing research. I enjoy working directly with people, teaching,  and science, so it seemed to be a perfect fit for my passions. I had applied for federal funding for my work and had interviewed with multiple labs about possibly joining their research.

Around this same time, I was approached with the idea of joining the staff at my church (Northridge Church, in Rochester, NY). I had joked for years about my desire to step out of science and into ministry, so watching these two passions competing with one another in my heart was overwhelming.

Then I got the letter about my proposal for federal funding -- my proposal had been rejected. That proposal was my ticket to jumping right into teaching. Now the only path left was to do a post-doc, where I would be doing research for a few years, before I would get another shot at a teaching position. And the worst part was that I would have to leave Rochester, and Northridge, because most of the opportunities for work in my field were not in the local area.

The decision was very hard. But eventually I agreed to apply for the ministry position and began the interview process. I worked through this while I wrapped up my dissertation writing and defended my work to earn my Ph.D. in Biophysics. I was hired and began my new career in ministry a few weeks after I was awarded my degree.

Mixing passions and finding new ones. I miss working in science. I truly do. But I've had incredible opportunities to mix some of my passions in my new position (e.g. leveraging my science and statistics backgrounds to help our leadership make informed decisions).

The Raspberry Pi on my desk might give you the impression I'm in denial.

And I've had opportunities to further ignite passions that have laid "dormant" to some degree because my research work had limited how much time I had available to focus in those areas.

Throughout all of this, my wife and I were able to pursue our desire to involve ourselves in adoption by beginning the foster care process. We would not have been able to do this if we were moving every few years because of new work opportunities.

Doing what I love with those I love. I am incredibly thankful for the role I play on the staff of a growing church that is in the business of leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus. I come to work every day excited about every opportunity I have to help people learn about their savior!

And I love everyone I work with. They are all passionate about our common mission and it is exciting to work somewhere where I can genuinely call all of my coworkers friends and where we care for each other as family (as my brothers and sisters in Christ, we ARE family in a way that blood relationships can only dream of achieving).

If you had asked me two years ago to describe where I would be in two years, I never would have described the scenario that has unfolded before me. God. Is. Good.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No Free Photo Calendar

Every year I look forward to making my family a photo calendar.

Last year around this time, we were finishing up our initial foster parent training course and waiting excitedly for our certification and that first phone call for a placement. We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know who would end up in our home, or for how long. It was possible that the first call could end up being for a forever child, all nicely and neatly; possible, even if unlikely.

So I felt a little weird about our photo calendar last year. We were getting certified to take in a child as old as age 2. What would they think about all of these things with Big Bro A plastered all over them, when our little foster son wasn't included? If we were planning the arrival of a new bio baby, we probably would have gone ahead without a second thought. After all, they would be many months away from caring about the pictures on the wall. But a bigger kid might get it right away.

I went ahead with the photo calendar. It turned out beautifully. I love it. There's a different verse for each month. There are verses about faith, and suffering, and thanksgiving, and orphan care. Verses that I thought might encourage us through some of the dark days of foster care.

Every year I wait for my free photo calendar credit from an online site. I just got mine today.

And I suddenly don't want to make a calendar this year.

I opened my photo gallery and stared at it for a minute. I scrolled through half a month. I looked at some beautiful pictures of the boys dressed up together for Halloween. I don't know if I can do a photo calendar this year.

The months are ticking away. Time passes so quickly with a baby in the home, even when each day can sometimes feel so long. The date they mentioned as "probably the earliest Baby S would go back to birth parent" feels sooner and sooner all the time.

I can't make the calendar, because I don't know if he'll still be here. I don't know when he's going to leave. I can't make a calendar without him in it. I can't just stop including him in that month when he might go. I can't stop having him in there partway through the year. How would I feel that first month I flip the page and he's not there? And yet - how would I feel if he leaves in the spring and by December we're still getting that fresh monthly reminder that there's another empty place in my heart that won't be filled in this lifetime?

Maybe it's a silly thing to let a calendar trip me up. I know I'm going to want pictures of him all over the place if and when he goes. I'm going to cry every day and every night for a lot of days and a lot of nights, and I'm going to hug the things he hugged and cry at the things he laughed at. I know that won't change no matter what is on my wall. I'm going to go back through my photo galleries and look at his pictures and videos over and over and let them become treasures as I celebrate and mourn my little one's return to his birth parent.

A calendar just seems to ask for certainty. It speaks of plans for the future. And we don't know. I feel powerless to plan this next year. I feel helpless as the month approaches. I trust God and I surrender it to him daily - hourly - every time we get frustrated with the system - every time we reach another baby milestone - each time Big Bro A is the best and sweetest big brother in the whole world. I truly believe in God's ability to use Baby S's situation for his good. I even believe that God's ultimate good does not always have to equal the safest, most stable childhood environment. I am willing to give that possibility over to God and willing to walk that road with him when it comes.

My calendar celebrates stable blessings in my life. I do not have stability in even those dearest treasures anymore. This might be the year we finally ditch those paper calendars. It's not exactly a necessary tool anymore.

But even if I pass on the calendar, the pain of the ever-approaching month will remain. And Baby Z's first birthday is fast approaching. Baby M's arrival and subsequent leaving anniversaries will be approaching soon after.

One of Big Bro's favorite things when he is sad is remembering that there are no more tears in heaven. There is no heartache, no hurt, and no uncertainty. There is no change. There is no more wrong or even ability for me to do wrong. I won't mess up and I won't have to wonder anymore. I'll have answers. I'll have Jesus. And whichever of my family follow after Jesus - I'll have them, too.

I love his sweet reminder of this beautiful promise. With each baby that leaves, I know there is one more little ache in my life that is not entirely a bad pain. It's a reminder. I'm not home yet. I'm hurting because this world is hard, and painful, and there is sadness and sin and sickness and neglect and abuse and death. But God's promise is that this is just a tiny blip in my forever, and when those little aches become more intense, it's just a stronger reminder:

Look forward to home. Home, where family is forever, and wholeness is the only option. I was never whole without Jesus anyway. These heartaches help me remember that. But one day I will be. I long for that day.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Vermonter In Me

I love Rochester more with each passing year. Josh and I have shifted many of our plans and dreams for the future in order to stay in this city and remain part of this community for the long term. I don't know what the future holds, but I would be totally on board with raising my children here, and having them look back on Rochester as home.

But on beautiful October and November mornings, when the yellow and orange leaves from the park near my home are blowing past my kitchen window, I stop and think back to my Vermont roots. I can't honestly say how much my little home state has changed these past few years. But when autumn colors make me homesick for Vermont foliage (nothing compares with Vermont colors in the fall), I can't help reflecting on the Vermont I remember - on the pieces of Vermont I miss, the pieces I was glad to leave behind, and the pieces I hope to pass on to my children.

Try not getting homesick when this was the view from your front porch

I miss sitting by the lake in the early morning, reading or writing in my composition notebook. I miss sitting on the swing near the woods and just taking in the changing leaves, the summer green, or the spring sound of running water in the little brook. I miss fishing with my mom and eating the fresh venison my dad brought home during hunting season. I miss walking our little dirt road on a rainy day when the road mushed beneath my feet and there were little orange salamanders to be caught and loved and guided safely out of harm's way. I miss knowing who was in each car that passed and having neighbors stop to say hello as they drove by. I miss knowing everyone on my street. I miss being able to wander away on a grand exploration of the woods for a whole day as a child without ever worrying about coming across someone who could harm me.

The woods just down the dirt road from my childhood home

I miss jeans, t-shirts, hoodies and sneakers as acceptable everyday wear. I miss maple syrup and creamies and thinking cheddar was the only kind of cheese. I miss filling up the bathtub before a storm in case the power went out (really, I do), and the cozy feeling of a meal cooked by candlelight over the wood stove when the power did go out, sometimes for days. I miss family and friends who used to live minutes away and now live hours away. I miss being present for extended family gatherings where we could enjoy each other's company, laugh at each other's quirkiness, and gorge ourselves on our favorite family dishes. I miss the joy of going out for a drive just because, and feeling like an insider because I could navigate the dirt back roads and knew just where all of the potholes were.

Our own little dirt road leading to Echo Lake

And there are things I don't miss. I don't miss the distance between things. I don't miss being so far from a grocery store that we needed to bring a cooler in the summer, or extra sleeping bags and snow pants in case the car broke down in the winter. I don't miss watching the garage burn down and wondering if it's going to take out the house, too, because it's taking forever for any of the three closest fire stations to get a truck out to our remote home. Or worrying that, in an emergency, an ambulance would not arrive until too late. I don't miss the poor quality medical care we came across too frequently. I don't miss the lack of growing, young, vibrant churches. Or the difficulty of socially navigating those awkward childhood and preteen years with small class sizes, like a class of ten in fifth grade (actually, the ten included our entire combined class of fifth and sixth grades). I don't miss the lack of positive activities to engage in when it's too cold to even go sledding. I don't miss the lack of diversity. I don't miss frost heaves. (Okay, I do miss those a little. Once they hit a certain level of awfulness they become a little funny.)

Winter on the lake

My children aren't growing up as Vermonters, but I want them to feel like they still have a part in the state I grew up in. I want them to love flannel and plaid. I want them to feel comfortable in sneakers and hiking boots. I want them to reach for their rain boots and rain coat on a wet afternoon and leave their umbrella behind because they care more about feeling the raindrops than keeping their hair dry. I want to pass on the importance of a home clean enough to be comfortable and lived in enough to be welcoming. I want them to love digging in dirt and throwing sticks and rocks into the water. I want them to chase bugs. I want them to stare out the window in wonder and joy at the changing seasons and every kind of weather. I want sticks to be their favorite toys. I want them to love kayaking and being outdoors. I want them to be the kind of people who value those get-togethers where everyone chips in, and who aren't afraid of a "potluck" because it's about togetherness and not about offending people by asking them to bring something to dinner.

Beautiful Echo Lake

I love Rochester. I am amazed at how different the culture can be here at times, in the state next door to where I grew up. The differences are not bad. But I also value my Vermont background.

I'm not sure that I could ever move back to little Vermont. There are some difficulties that I'm just not ready to face again - especially the difficulty of finding a growing church with other young families. But not choosing to live there doesn't change the fact that part of me is always going to be a Vermonter and not a New Yorker. Part of me is always going to be more of an "outdoorsman" than a girly girl (although, no, I do not ever intend to hunt - sorry, dad!). Part of me will always be proud of myself just for being able to drive through the city, even though I panicked no fewer than three times on the way through it. Part of me will always reach for the jeans and hoodie longingly, even when I decide they're not appropriate that day. Part of me will never cease to be amazed that I can get to a great grocery store in under 5 minutes. Part of me will always have a sneaking suspicion that my day was wasted if none of it was spend outdoors. Part of me will always remember that deep down, I'm a Vermonter; and I'm okay with that.

Public service announcement: Part of this post was brought on by my finally switching over to a 585 number. It's been a good run, 802. I already miss you a little bit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Adoption matters. Period.

Don't mix up my intentions. I don't care about adoption because I do foster care. I do foster care because I think adoption is incredibly important.

Every single follower of Jesus should care about adoption as well.

This sweeping declarative statement stands firm on scripture. See Ephesians 1:3-5:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will...

Can you see the significance of adoption in that statement? Not only did God, in love, set in his mind to adopt us, but he set that in motion before the creation of the world. John Piper even goes so far as to say adoption is greater than the universe. God's act to create the universe was a first step in his ultimate plan to expand his family by adopting billions of new children. The created universe serves as the backdrop for the ultimate love story.

Creation exists as the stage for God's pursuit of the spiritual orphan.

Because adoption matters so much in our vertical relationship (with God), it stands to reason that reflecting God by adopting those who have no family should be a high priority.

It represents the greatest picture of God's love for his people. That God would step down out of his high position and choose to care for us as his own, despite our sin and despite our mess, should be emulated on our level.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that every single Christian should adopt. But I do think every single Christian has a role to play in adoption. Many Christians need to step out of their comfort zone and take up the cause to adopt the many local children in foster care and the millions of orphans worldwide -- but those who don't feel that they can adopt can still play a huge role in supporting and praying for adoptive families.

Will you consider taking up the challenge to love a child the way that God loved you? Will you consider reflecting the love that is greater than the universe by opening your home to a child without one?

If not, are there adoptive families out there can you support? Could you bring them a meal? Say a prayer? Speak some words of encouragement?

Adoption matters. Period. Let's all play a part!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Darkness and Paper Flowers

Our little apartment community has gone through a lot the last couple of weeks. There were three days of uncertainty and, not to be graphic, but a growing and unsettling smell. We hoped it was nothing. Then it got bad enough that we had to do something. Maintenance called the police. An ambulance, four police cars, a medical examiner, animal control, and the apartment manager visited our apartment building over the course of a couple of hours. It was a tough, tense, sad afternoon as I waited and watched, wondering what was going on across the hall and hoping that my guesses were wrong. Thankfully, Big Bro fell asleep late and slept through the whole thing. He was totally unaware of the tension, the emergency vehicles, and the policeman knocking on our door. I'm so thankful that he missed the voices in the hallway, the remarks of the officers, and the intense smell coming into our home every time the door across the hall opened and closed.

I felt so trapped. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't even know if we were safe. I didn't want to be in the middle of it and would have wanted to take the kids and myself out of the situation if I could, but I didn't know what I'd see - or smell - if I walked out of my door and passed the apartment at the top of the stairs.

As I washed the baby's bottles, I looked out my kitchen window and saw the medical examiner removing a body from the building. Our neighbor. He had died in his home, days ago, and no one had known until the smell was bad enough that it couldn't have been anything else. Again, I'm really not trying to be graphic. It was all just so sad and so shocking. Every indication, including his recent behavior, how the police responded, and his family's reaction when they were finally allowed to enter the apartment and begin cleanup, is that our neighbor committed suicide.

Processing this has been difficult. At first, it's hard not to be selfish. I feel so sad for him. But the physical ramifications of his actions have affected all of the neighbors and his family in just a terribly graphic way. Our home didn't feel like our home for a couple of days after we realized what we had been smelling. It was hard to eat there. It was hard to sleep there. It was hard to feel joy and recognize beauty with the physical reminder of death and suffering. It was hard to know how to keep the three-year-old from asking too many questions about something that he noticed, too, when we usually encourage questions and love his information-gathering process.

My method of coping with difficult things is to try to understand. I want to imagine it, to piece it all together, and to figure out why he did this and what he was thinking in those last moments. I can't see any way of arriving where he did without intensely deep darkness and depression. I know there was a fall back into addiction, too. The crazy thing about alcohol abuse is that he could carry in his choice substance in large quantities, in broad daylight, and we felt powerless to do anything about it. I even heard his regular cab driver try to address it with him once. His fall back into addiction was not subtle. But it was legal, and we had no way to force him to slow down.

Trying to picture what happened, how he felt at those last moments, and what it still looks like across the hall took my breath away many times those first few days and left me struggling with the weight of his darkness. There were nights of trying to fight it away and yet feeling guilty that I wasn't trying to understand his burden. I have had to fight this temptation and realize that entering his darkness doesn't lessen it; it just hurts me. I will never understand; I will never be there; and I don't want to see the apartment across the hall or understand how they found him or what choices he made. Carrying this burden doesn't help him, but it does hurt me. Lying awake at night sweating with fear and anxiety does not change his situation for the better, and it makes it much harder to keep the joy and wholeness of our household. This burden is still too heavy and too dark for our little ones to share, and my diving into it does not help me to protect them.

Once the smell started fading, it became easier for me to start to shift my focus outside of myself. It's selfish that it took me so long, but it's what happened. At first I wrongly thought that selfishness would be trying to distance myself from the situation. I thought that caring meant immersing myself in what happened until I had it all figured out. Instead, the more I tried to understand, the more inwardly focused I became. Fear and anxiety does not lend well to putting others first. I've had to find distance.

It's not that I want to move on and forget this man. But I want to move past the horror and start grieving the person. I don't understand what happened in his mind in those last days, but I can look on the last two years and try to remember and appreciate who he was when he was healthier and in recovery. "Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow." (James 1:17) The joys, loves and talents in this man's life were good things - gifts from God.

Some of the flowers from the hallway window

When we moved in two years ago, this neighbor was much more himself, although still not whole. We saw glimpses of his love for beauty, his passion for art. His window overlooking the driveway was painted with a mural. The window in our shared hallway was always decorated with something relevant to the closest holiday or changing season. If there was nothing big to celebrate, he dug until he found something. He was creative, and he wanted to share that beauty with the people around him. His little garden in the backyard was full of ripe red tomatoes which he had grown and shared with neighbors. When we moved in, unfortunately, we saw the red tomatoes grow old and rot off the vine; and this summer, they were never re-planted. But there were hints that he had been fully there not long before, and that he had a love for beauty and nature.

This summer, we started noticing the alcohol coming back into his home. He'd been open about the fact that he was in recovery and had talked about his rehab program. It wasn't a secret that he'd been in some dark places and that it was such a positive thing for him to have a stable home, a job, and a support group to help him heal and recover. So seeing those 24-packs coming in with increasing frequency was painful- a definite red flag.

Then the beautiful hallway window started being updated less frequently and more lazily. The spring flowers were still there when he put up the beautiful bouquet of live flowers for Memorial Day. I eventually had to throw those out, because they were there far past their prime and seemed forgotten. The Independence Day flags went up while the paper flowers were still in the window. The candy box on the windowsill was never restocked and started to fill with old wrappers. And as fall approached and Halloween drew near, the old decorations gathered dust and the spiders moved in to the corners of the window. A red flag.

When we first moved in, he introduced himself and offered to share his grill in the backyard. So friendly and kind. But... The next week, he didn't remember having met me, much less his offer. He never really had much of a conversation with me, although I did greet him when I saw him. He'd mumble things that didn't really make sense in context. He was a little unstable. There was some concern that he had the potential to even be dangerous (not sure how to take it when the mail delivery person warns me about my neighbor). Josh had more successful conversations with him than I did. This is intentional; he tries to lead in connecting with our male neighbors and I try to lead in connecting with female neighbors. We always felt like we weren't getting through to him. We had conversations with each other, wondering how to reach him, wishing there was someone in his life to speak with authority and help him out of the darkness and the addiction. But we were never able to get through, and there was no indication that anyone else was, either. Red flag.

I promise I'm not just rambling, although partially I am still just processing everything that has been happening. It's hard to respond to suicide. My heart hurts for his family. I pray for peace and hope for them as they cope with this loss. I saw glimpses of the beautiful person this man used to be, and I hope with all of my heart that they are able to grieve that beautiful person with love and forgiveness. I hope they are able to heal.

There are two things I want to take away from this.

One: Have community. Community is SO IMPORTANT. I cannot overemphasize the value of a supportive and loving community. Don't know where to find one? If you're local, message me - I'd love to tell you about the love, support, and true community we have found in our church. I'm not just saying that to sell our church. Our community in our church is like family, and with most of our family long-distance, we have had to rely on them for so many things. They have come through for us over and over again. These are the people in my life who know who I want to be and how I want to live for the rest of my life. These are the people who have authority to speak into my life. If those red flags ever start popping up, these are the people who can stop me, check in with me, ask if I'm okay. These are people who have earned credibility in the past, who will be able to speak into my future. These are people who love Jesus, love me, and pray for me. I don't know if our neighbor had community anymore. I wish he had allowed us to be part of his community. I wonder if the darkness was already growing too thick to let others in by the time we moved in.

Two: Be community. Reach out to others. Ask your neighbors how they are. Be part of a small group of people where you know what their struggles are, where you can be real with each other. Let them see you - the real, authentic you, flaws and all - so that they can be real and authentic back. Love them through their flaws. We're all flawed. We all sin. If you've given each other authority to tackle those rough patches together, then help them to see those places where their own sin and darkness blinds them, so that, by God's grace, they can continue moving toward his beautiful, faithful, unchanging light.

Some people may not accept your outreached hand. Almost every one of the neighbors I've reached out to about this tragedy in our community acknowledged that they had known something was wrong in this neighbor's life, but that every time they'd tried to reach out, they'd been unable to get past a surface level conversation. I wish we could have helped him, but let me tell you - I'm so glad I can fall back on the peace that we'd been intentional, concerned, and prayerful about our neighbor. I'm not saying there wasn't more we could have done. There always is. We are not perfect. But I'm so glad I can honestly say that we cared and we tried. We'll continue trying to reach out and connect with our neighbors. Maybe we can have a real impact in their lives. I hope so.