Fostering Refugees – The Stigma that Scared Me

A few months ago, at the height of reports showing kids being separated from their parents at the border, Pete and I came across an opportunity that immediately felt like a calling. We were encouraged to apply for a license that would allow us to foster these children until they are reunited with their parents or sponsor family, and we both were immediately on board. Since we submitted our application we have completed 15 hours of in-person training, approximately 22 hours of on-line Foster Parent College training, and amounts of paperwork that exceeded all reasonable expectations.

Last night we finished laying our hearts and our home on the line for a 4-hour foster home inspection and family interview.

Things that went well:

  1. We’re now one step closer to offering a temporary home to the kids separated from their parents at the border. My heart is singing!
  2. Our house is cleaner, safer, and more organized than it has ever been before. Good luck opening any of our cabinets ever again. If you need surgery, we have a platinum 250 person first aid kit that will SAVE YOUR LIFE! If you’re on fire, head on over and we’ll extinguish it immediately!
  3. Pete and I feel closer as a couple after exploring our past, present, and future, our strengths and weakness, and our hopes and dreams for 4 hours with a complete stranger.

Things that could’ve gone better:

  1. We could’ve done without the live scorpion on Isaac’s bedroom curtain during the SAFETY inspection!
  2. Could’ve done without our Jack Russell fishing through the case workers purse to eat her hair clip.
  3. When I answered that we had no weapons, Isaac could’ve forgotten (just like I had) that I have a Samurai sword from a leadership conference many years ago. #compassionatesamurai
  4. Isaac and Sonoma could NOT have played their new giggle-inducing game, which consists of them repeating the words, “you’re a bad mommy, you’re a bad daddy.” #kidsarehilarious
  5. Isaac could’ve avoided using EVERY innocent toy as a weapon of some sorts. The Minnie Mouse blow dryer turned full pistol last night!

We know we’re on the right path and answering a calling as none of this feels burdensome. We are thrilled for the next step and to minister love to these kids at a time of such trauma and fear and loss. #allgodschildren

Last night was also the first time we made our decision public by posting on social media. Until last night the only people we had shared with were immediate family and those we asked to be our references.

Since my post last night I have had quite a few people reach out wondering when we made this decision. I’ve been thinking a lot about why I hadn’t made our decision public until now.

The first reason I haven’t been openly sharing this decision is because I didn’t want it to look like or feel like we were seeking accolades. I knew a lot of our friends would be excited for us and I didn’t want our decision to move forward, when the movement got tough, to be influenced by the desire to please others or make others proud. I truly felt like this was a calling from the beginning and I didn’t want to be motivated or feel pressured by external sources.

Secondly, and sadly, I have been tentative to share our decision because of the negative reactions I feared we would receive from some. Due to the polarized climate we currently live in I was worried that our commitment to foster kids that have been separated from their parents at the border would require us to defend ourselves. I have heard so much hateful rhetoric throughout the year that paints immigrants as nonhuman and undeserving of love and kindness, compassion and grace. I could barely stomach the idea that our decision may be received with this level of vitriol…or any level of disappointment whatsoever. I was preparing myself for conversations with people I love and care about that would strip away my respect for them. I was arming up for debates on what “kind” of child “deserves” help. I was expecting heartbreaking backlash from at least a few people in our lives and I was afraid of how our relationships would weather the storm. But, the truth is…once an issue is made personal, hearts often soften. Once there’s a face we can touch, and a hand we can hold, putting a voice to a highly debated and sensitive issue, the dynamics begin to shift. Civility is often restored when the matter in question lands in our own backyard.

We have received an outpouring of love and support since my post last night and although it appears that some are more excited about our decision than others, there hasn’t been any nastiness or uncomfortable pushback. I must admit that I didn’t give the benefit of the doubt and for that I’m sorry. I hope our decision will help bring a name and a face to the debate around the border. I hope our decision will humanize this issue versus politicize it. I hope our decision will remind us and others of the inherent value of all people regardless of ethnicity, country of origin, race, color, religion, etc. I hope and pray our decision will be heart changing and maybe even life saving for all of us who are a part of this process.

A Daughter’s Response to an Ageless Father

My dad wrote the authentic and vulnerable poem below about his experience with aging and his hope in the Lord. I’m thankful that he gave me permission to share his poem on my blog. I’ve added a poem I wrote to him in response that he hasn’t yet seen. Dad, your influence reaches far and wide and my love for you is boundless. Thank you for allowing me to share your words with others…thank you for your courage in being open about how it feels to grow older. I learn so  much from you and mom every day!

Shrinking Man

Possibilities and dreams
the world was full of them it seemed.
Now my options fading fast,
life much smaller than my past,
Shrinking man.

Lovely wife and precious kids
Love my God for all he did,
Still feel his love as time flies past
But it remains a fact, alas
Shrinking man.

Influence fades as we get old,
Once sought for wisdom, now just told,
Powerlessness seems to creep in slow,
A mocking sense it brings of woe,
Shrinking man.

So on HIM I fix my gaze,
As my person fades away,
A day will come when I shall die,
And then I’ll see the reason why,
The process isn’t bad you see,
It’s just the path to victory.
With joy I’ll rest in His embrace,
Forever I’ll behold His face
Thanking Him eternally
That I will no longer be,
Shrinking man.

– Ron Little (my dad)


Larger Than Life – A Legacy of Love

My dad, my rock, my shield, my strength
grows bigger in my eyes, not weak
His heart expands, his wisdom grows
to soak it in, I draw close

In his eyes and in his deeds
God’s growing love is what I see
Each day, each year that passes by
his courage builds before my eyes

He shares his doubts, his fears, his pain
with an open heart he faces change
a vulnerable glimpse he offers us
a friend, a father, a man I trust

I’ve watched my dad grow in the Lord
evolve and change moving forward
a human life with sin and grace
reminding me I have a place

So, to my dad I want to say
as your “person fades away”
who you are to me remains
the many who taught me how to pray
A day will come when you will die
and I’ll always know the reason why
you loved the Lord with so much might
encouraged me to keep my sight
on the One of love and light
You will never be small to me
You will only be more free

– your daughter

Grief Keeps Giving. Grace Keeps Saving.

Burt, it’s April and I miss you.

I love celebrating your life but I hate that I have to.

It’s hard to describe the shadows that creep in late at night, while I lay awake unguarded. The harrowing memories that plague my tired mind. It starts before I even consciously realize that we’ve slipped into April. It’s as if everything shifts. The air is thicker, the mood cloudier, the dreams lonelier, the heart heavier, the words insufficient. Like clockwork the grief creeps forward, relentlessly gaining intensity with each passing second. It’s difficult to explain the trembling in my voice that appears this time of year. I may have told a thousand stories that included your name, but in April I can’t even silently think of you without tears welling up in my worn out eyes. It’s as if the valiant effort my mind put forth all year to shrink that permanent hole in my life was all in vain…completely upended as the hole burrows deeper and wider overnight. I am flooded with the realness, the pain, the emptiness that comes with no longer having you here. It’s as if I’m flung back to that day 5 years ago and I have suddenly forgotten how to cope…forgotten the miles I’ve traveled in healing…forgotten how to live with the sorrow that visits always uninvited.

There are no words to adequately describe the aching I feel in my spirit to see you again…hear your laugh, hug your neck, listen to your stories, tell you mine, introduce you to your darling niece and nephews. There’s no stopping the flow of tears as I imagine how much you would love these precious little ones that have been born since you departed, and how much they would love you back. Just last night I read The Book With No Pictures to Isaac, the nephew you kissed on the knee as you passed in the stars. I couldn’t help but imagine the hilarious voices you would’ve invented while reading this book and how much he would’ve relished in your time together. I try to do it justice, to make you proud, to give Isaac a glimpse of the joy and silliness you brought into our lives. I give it my all even while fighting back the quiver in my voice.

I love that your legacy lives on in your family and friends, but I hate that you left a legacy so soon.

Your birthday is in April.

The last time I saw your smiling face and heard your voice was in April, on Easter Sunday, when we announced that I was pregnant.The last letter you wrote me arrived in April. It was red ink, with capital letters, in your beautiful architectural hand writing, clearly expressing your excitement that your baby sister was going to be a mom. You passionately described the unconditional love that comes with parenthood. This letter…the last letter you wrote to me still explodes with adoration for your beautiful girls.

Then there is May.

You left us in May. The last text message you sent the family was on May 11th, the same day you died. While we were celebrating dad’s 70th birthday, you were being greeted by Jesus. The call I will never forget came the morning of May 12th. It was Mother’s Day…it was a day of mere survival because the unthinkable had happened…you had not survived. We delivered your eulogy on the 21st day of May.

I hate these anniversaries.

Every year, for 2 months I feel myself receding into the shadows where words are meager and bitterness clings to the tip of my tongue. I’m tempted to numb the vivid memories of this trauma with hollow distractions and senseless behaviors. For 2 months a year I spend sleepless nights soaking my pillow with tears of regret, anxiety, anger, fear, heartbreak. For 2 months a year I can no longer fight off the visuals of your death, your viewing, your casket being lowered into the ground, your daughters faces as I drove them to the cemetery. For 2 months a year I’m reminded of the agony I felt completing menial daily tasks after you passed. I’m reminded of the first time I showered after your death and how I despised myself for any sense of relief I felt as the warm water poured over me. I couldn’t shake the guilt that came with knowing that you lost your life in a bitter cold river and now I was allowing this same hijacker of life…this water…rain over me as a source of comfort, washing away my tears. For 2 months a year I think back to that time I couldn’t bare to use punctuation because it felt too final. As if the energy it took to end a sentence was more than I could muster. For 2 months a year the dam breaks wide open and I can’t fight back the sobs or run from the gripping sadness.

Then, the strangest and most unexpected gift is given. Somewhere in the middle of those 2 months I find solace because you ALWAYS show up. You show up in a dream that someone shares with me. You show up in a Bob Marley song that’s playing in a random boutique I step foot in for the first time. You show up in a memory I had forgotten about. You show up in a picture I’ve never seen. You show up in a story I’ve never heard. You show up in a beautiful building that I instantly imagine you creating. You show up in a whisper reminding me that I must not take a moment for granted. I feel you standing beside me. You dare me to self-reflect on my attitude, my complaints, my propensity to take the blessings around me for granted. I picture your smiling face and imagine all I would give to prevent you from taking that hike by yourself…I imagine how many more breaths you could’ve had…should’ve had…and I’m convinced once again that I must use my time and the gift of life wisely and in honor of you. You show up during those 2 months to confirm once again that God’s grace is sufficient for me and His power is made perfect in my weakness.

It is during these wearisome months that it becomes crystal clear how God uses each heart wrenching moment to remind me of the preciousness of life. Every year, by His grace, I experience supernatural strength and peace to push through the months of tears and the nights laying awake thinking of you and what I would sacrifice to have you with us again. He comforts me in my most vulnerable time of need and assures me that one day we will meet again and it will be a reunion more beautiful than I could ever imagine. He joins me in my grief and assures me that my grief is not without hope. This year He gave me a song on Easter Sunday and it consumed my soul as I sang from the depths of my mourning heart, “death where is your sting?!” As I sang, with my arms reached high I imagined you with open arms ready to embrace me when it’s my time to journey home. He draws me into Him and I feel close to you again.

Burt, it’s April and I feel you near.

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Burton James Little

“And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” – 1 Pete 5:10

 

“$h*!-hole!” The Day I Cussed at My Parents

The President said some bad words this week. I said some bad words once…

I was 11. I walked through our front door after school and there was no mistaking that something was about to go down. Both of my parents were sitting on the couch staring at me. They invited me to sit with them and I knew this was not a friendly offer, but rather the beginning of the end. I had no way of predicting that what was about to occur would change the way I spoke forever.

My parents explained that someone (who I will refer to as a tattle-tale) had shared with them the “choice” words I had learned and begun using at school. They claimed to know every obscene word I had spoken and their disappointment was palpable. Then, befell the most humiliating punishment I have ever received. They required that I say out loud every swear word I had ever uttered.

I thought I would throw up.

I had never heard anyone in my home swear. My dad was a pastor of a small home church with strict rules around taking the Lord’s name in vain and my mom is quite literally the most wholesome woman you’ve ever met. I think it’s possible that the only time my mother has used foul language is when she didn’t know it was foul language.  

I cried and cried.

They waited.

After what felt like an eternity I started with things like, “A-hole” and “the S-word.” My dad responded by asking me if I had only used the abbreviated versions or if I had said the whole word? He reminded me that the expectation was to say to them exactly what I had said outside our home. No cheating. They were not about to make this easy on me.

I don’t know how much time passed while I sobbed and choked on the ugly words I had so flippantly used on the 6th grade playground, but I know that in those moments I realized that the people I respected and admired most in my life deserved better than a daughter who resorted to 4-letter words just to fit in at school. I realized that to be true to myself I needed to speak in a way that represented my heart and who I was regardless of my surroundings. I realized there was a reason I could barely cough up these words in front of my parents…because this language was unlovely and they were the most loving people I knew….because this language was base and I held them in high regard…because this language was dishonorable and I wanted nothing more than to honor my parents…because this language brought no beauty, no peace, no joy and I wanted all of those things for my family, my friends, and myself.  

To this day I don’t know how, but I made it through the embarrassing list. My parents forgave me and then, my dad added a lesson that sticks with me today. He said, “If the only way you can describe something is by using profanity, then others might come to conclude that your vocabulary and intelligence are limited.” Such a big dose of truth for a pre-adolescent!

The lesson I learned that day changed the way I spoke.  An expletive didn’t escape my lips for years! At 11 years old I stopped using this language because it didn’t line up with my heart or my parent’s rules. Naturally, as I grew older I also began to see the importance of context and tone. It didn’t take long for me to realize that how I used my words was more important than the words themselves. The truth is that every now and then I break my parent’s rules (sorry mom and dad). In fact I burned my finger on a casserole dish this morning and was relieved that the kids were at school when the physical pain expressed itself through my mouth as an unfiltered exclamation point. However, that sour word I used to describe the pyrex dish is not a word I would use in a context that requires sensitivity and love. Because of that lesson 27 years ago, I strive to hold a standard of language that represents who I am, who I want to be, and what lives in my heart. I strive to use words that emphasize love and beauty. I strive to honor those around me and the Lord I serve. I strive to consider how my words affect those around me. I strive to use words that bring life and build relationship, give respect and bring value, lift up and include. And of course I strive to make my parents proud.    

If an 11 year-old was capable of learning this, certainly the President of the United States could as well?

A Letter to Mormons

Dear Mormon Neighbors,

Having lived in Gilbert for most of my life, we have been visited by many young, passionate, Mormon missionaries throughout the years. Recently they have been offering their help with anything we may need assistance with. These exchanges always include the typical pleasantries where I thank them for their generous offer, and add that, “no, we don’t need help with anything at this time.” After their last visit however, as the young men pedaled away, I realized that I do have a request. A request that has been bubbling beneath the surface, unspoken for quite some time now. A desire that began formulating in my grade school years and has been refined since having children of my own. The next time a Mormon missionary asks if there’s anything they can do for me, I’m going to humbly and vulnerably reply as follows:

  • Please teach your children to be inclusive of my non-mormon children and please guide them to carry that inclusion past grade school, into middle school, and throughout high school.
  • Please encourage your children to sit with mine in the lunchroom.
  • Please permit your kids to invite my kids to their slumber parties, birthday parties, and weekend get togethers even AFTER my child has made it clear that he or she is not interested in attending fireside, seminary, or church with your family.
  • Please allow your teen to go with mine to school dances, athletic events, and group dinners trusting that just like you, my husband and I have done the best we know how to raise a teenager who knows right from wrong.
  • Please welcome my children into your homes and permit your children to visit ours.
  • Please ask your kids to consider how isolating it must be on “Seminary (extra credit) Days” for those kids who do NOT come to school dressed for church.
  • Please reflect on the fact that adolescents spend the majority of their waking hours comparing themselves to their peers, so when they recognize that it would never be “acceptable” to date your son or daughter or be your son or daughter’s best friend, it is, at best, damaging to their delicate self-esteem.
  • Please call to mind your younger years when your primary objective was to be loved and accepted for who you were without having to pretend you were someone else.
  • Please understand that my families faith also emphasizes the importance of loving others, giving of ourselves, forgiving those who have wronged us and seeking forgiveness when we wrong others, doing what is right and turning from evil, seeking a relationship with God, spending time in prayer, and living a life inspired by Jesus.
  • Please support your children in having open, vulnerable, honest, transparent, loving, kind, accepting conversations with my children about what they believe and why. In fact, while our kids are having that “grown-up” conversation, I also hope to enter into this depth of sharing with you…the Mormon parent.
  • Please know that I hold your child in the same regard as any other child who shares my family’s faith or who prescribes to no religion at all. Your child is special, and beautiful, and worthy of my love and caring regardless of doctrine or theology.
  • Please believe that I see our differences as an opportunity for us to grow together in loving-acceptance. God did not call us to tolerate our neighbors. I love and welcome you, your family, and your faith because we are all children of God made in His image. Your faith is a sizable component of who you are, and you are God’s creation with gifts and beauty and a soul that has the ability to positively transform my life with each encounter.

As these hopes for my children spill out, I realize that these are the same yearnings I had when I was too young to express them and they remain yearnings for me now. I would like to know my Mormon neighbors. I would like for us to share our celebrations and mourn our losses together. I would like to enter into deep relationships with you that allow us to celebrate our differences and lift each other up versus silently judging one another from across the street or the backyard fence. I would like us to hug and share dinners, and text jokes, and go to movies, and have pool parties, and discuss politics, and cry and laugh, and live life together. These desires have never been expressed because I never felt important enough to express them, but now that I have children there is nothing more vital than ensuring they have a deep sense of belonging to this village we chose to raise them in.

For decades now I have felt an invisible yet palpable partition between my family and our mormon neighbors…a silent criterion that has said, “we can’t be that close…we can’t walk this life together too often, we can’t be intimate friends unless we share the same faith.” I want to tear down this barricade and abolish this silent destroyer of fellowship. I fear we are forfeiting valuable friendships and life-changing communion with one another as we allow religion to segregate our lives.

We are not that different. Our children are not that different. We are all living in a beautiful yet broken world doing the best we can with what we have. With inclusion and acceptance we can lighten each other’s burdens and love each other through the brokenness. We are all damaged humans, so let’s be damaged together. As our fractured pieces are assembled together, we will transform into a magnificent and vast tapestry of vibrant hues and unity…we can weave our hearts into a community of “us”…dynamic threads of surviving souls stretching out to reach each other, love each other, understand each other….staying true to ourselves while supporting one another. Loved and loving! Fully belonging!

Sincerely,

Renee’ (your hopeful neighbor)

P.S. I am not proposing that Mormons are the only religious group that could receive a request comparable to this one, or that this applies to every Mormon. I’m also not assuming that I wouldn’t, myself, benefit from reading the same words and applying them to my life with regards to another group or an “other,” an “outsider.” I believe every religion and every denomination could benefit from being more inclusive, but I write this letter in relation to my own experiences and memories and the concerns I have for my children. My Jewish/Agnostic husband could write an identical letter, based on his history, and just change the greeting to Dear Christians or Dear Italian Catholics. We can all admit that it feels good to belong to a group, but too often it’s at the expense of living a life void of those who are different from us, and I believe this is a tragedy. It is exhausting to correctly locate and consistently remain in the good graces of the right “club” these days. Race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation, socio-economic status, neighborhood, state, coast, country, profession, and the list of ways we etch the invisible line goes on and on. I find that when I try too hard to belong to a particular group I lose sight of God’s vision for my life, which starts with loving “others” the way He loves me. We are created for community, and I believe our lives will always be richer if we truly follow God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. I pray that God will give us the courage to knock down walls, the strength to build bridges, and the grace to love with out qualifiers. I pray that my children will grow up loved and loving! Fully belonging!

Constellation Baby

To my dear son Isaac Burton,

You met him once in the vastness of heaven and space. His arms reaching for you, no longer stiff, no longer cold. The cosmos faded as he watched you draw near. His eyes smiled, no longer grey, no longer lifeless.

He waited for you in the stars and held you close as you journeyed through the constellations.

He whispered his love for you and kissed you gently before you entered the life from which he had just departed. He shared his ocean blue eyes and startling smile with you – those eyes and that smile that he inconceivably left by the Ty River. You touched his soul, swallowed his essence, embraced his light, and then you EXPLODED into our world.

You met our grief with healing and beauty and powerful, overwhelming life. Your first breath was a cooling and beautiful fog over our scalding trauma – a cleansing of our hearts that had festered with loss and bled with each shattering tear. Your ocean blue eyes opened and we saw him gazing back, searing hope into our souls, connecting life and loss in a circle of complete unity. Both of you permanently branded into our lives forever. Your smile illuminated the room as if he were there, holding us together in his starlight. Your vivacious cry was his voice assuring us that we can hurt and still heal. We can shudder with grief and still laugh. We can die and still live in the hearts of those who loved us and those we meet in heaven’s stars.

In Loving Memory of my brother, Burton James

 

My Testimony

For 34 years, I described my faith as “inherited.” I spent a significant amount of my adult life wrestling with my convictions and whether or not my spiritual life was solely a result of my upbringing. I openly shared with other Christian friends the desire to have a faith that was my own, a faith I experienced first hand, a faith I had heard so many others enthusiastically proclaim from the pulpit after encountering a miracle in the midst of their life’s “rock bottom.” I longed for something to strengthen my spiritual walk…I longed to know The Lord in a way so real that there would be no room for doubt….I longed for a testimony that I couldn’t ignore or explain away. I always sensed deep down that to secure my faith, I would need a moment where everything changed….saved by something supernatural, something undeniably bigger than myself. I spent many years praying for that moment and that it would forever obliterate my lingering uncertainty. I prayed for a testimony that I could share with passion and authenticity.

I was 12 weeks pregnant with our first baby and it was 7am on Mother’s Day when my phone rang. I saw that it was my sister-in-law and immediately assumed she was calling to wish me my first “Happy Mother’s Day.” I answered the phone and cheerfully said, “Happy Mother’s Day Nicole,” but in a distant and shaky voice she responded by asking if I was with my husband and if she could speak to him instead. As my husband held the phone, I thought I heard her whisper, “Burt’s dead.” My mind immediately began rejecting the sights and sounds around me as I watched the color drain from my husband’s face and listened to him vehemently repeat, “that’s not funny….stop…why are you saying that?” He left the room and I watched the walls close in around me as the world disappeared. I somehow summoned the courage and the strength to walk from my bedroom to the living room as my husband returned from the porch and somehow conveyed to me that my brother had died in a tragic accident. Reality ripped through me like a jagged knife and I my heart was left severed…barely beating. Soul shattering pain has a sound. It’s deafening silence is filled with cries so raw they don’t sound human. Grief has a taste and a texture. It is sharp and unforgiving. It is bitter but necessary to survive. Tragedy alters your senses forever. I began trembling in an effort to reject the truth as I begged, “you must’ve misunderstood…that could not have happened…he’s probably hurt and in the hospital, but he’s not dead!” I insisted that my husband call the chaplain to get the correct information…information I could live with. I was absolutely convinced there had been a horrible mistake…an incomprehensible misunderstanding and that another phone call would clear up all of the confusion, loss, and darkness. With another call it was confirmed that we were now facing the most harrowing weeks of our lives. I fell to my knees in the middle of the floor, crying out in a voice I didn’t recognize, shaking and rocking as if my body was incapable of absorbing another breath. My husband placed a blanket around my shoulders as if my trembling could be rectified with physical warmth. Screams escaped the deepest part of my being, “not my family! This doesn’t happen to us! This doesn’t happen to us!! What about my mom!? Where’s my mom?! It’s Mother’s Day! Not us! Not us! Not my brother! My mom! Where’s my mom?!” Even 3 years later, when I think back to that horrifying day it’s as if I’m separated from it all and watching from a dark detached place. From afar I can see my mom at my front door trembling with disbelief. I watch my little brother kick open the front door, throw his hat across the room and embrace my mom and I with arms that would never hug our brother in this world again. The sorrow is tangible. The pain audible. I used to hear stories of loss or watch tragedy on the news and say, “I can’t imagine!” and I was right…I truly could never have imagined how horrific unexpected grief would be. Even now that I’ve lived through something traumatic, there’s a barrier my soul has created to protect me from fully re-imagining the devastation. When I let my mind wander, I still cannot conceive surviving the kind of loss my family has already survived. It’s as if what we endured that day was from a separate life…a life once removed and even though we made it to the other side I cannot fathom weathering another tragedy like the loss of my brother.

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My brother and his beautiful family

Five months after Burt’s passing, my little brother (Ryan) and I flew to Seattle to tour where our older brother had spent the last year of his life. We ate his favorite food at his favorite restaurants, took his favorite hikes, and visited where he had very happily worked for the year before we lost him.

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Ryan and I on Burt’s favorite hike

It was a beautiful and gut-wrenching trip. As we waited in the airport for our flight home we reminisced about the emotional yet healing trip we had just encountered. I was flooded with emotion when I finally worked up the nerve to ask Ryan, “How do you know Burt is ok? How do you know God is real? How do you KNOW that you know?” Void of judgment, my younger brother shared with me that he knew Burt was ok because he knows The Lord is real and that his personal relationship with God our Father has made his faith strong. With the few tears I had left, I admitted to Ryan that I didn’t have this faith but that I had longed for it for years. I confessed, “I don’t know that The Lord is real. I don’t know that Burt is ok or that there’s a heaven. I have so much doubt and I want to have peace. I have no peace and I’m scared.” Ryan and I had a powerfully honest and vulnerable conversation and he promised he would be praying that I would find the assurance and peace I was seeking. There was no way for me to imagine the turn my life would take, the challenges I would face, the fear that would soon flood my heart and mind.

Shortly after our trip I became completely debilitated with a chronic migraine that stole my life for months. I wasn’t just weak or weary…I was profoundly incapacitated. After having our son, Isaac Burton, we moved in with my parents. I was unable to work, unable to drive, unable to run a simple errand or clean my house. I was unable to do most of the things we take for granted every day. The loss I experienced from no longer being able to participate in everyday tasks didn’t hold a candle to the grief I felt due to not being able to care for my one and only newborn baby boy. I couldn’t provide the basic things a mother gives her child. I couldn’t feed my son, I couldn’t bathe him or play with him or even laugh with him. I couldn’t comfort my son when he cried. I was soon on 10 different medications whose side effects made me so ill I lost 40lb in less than 2 months. I saw multiple chiropractors, acupuncturists, reflexologists, massage therapists, dentists, endodontists, 6 different neurologists, visited the ER 3 times and was finally hospitalized for infusion therapy for 3 days with zero progress. It was after this hospitalization that my husband drove his spiritless wife back to her parent’s house while she was swallowed by a dark abyss.

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How I spent most of my days for 5 months

A day or two after my hospitalization my brother and sister-in-law brought dinner over for the whole family. My pain was too extreme and the multiple meds I was on made me too sick to eat, so I retreated to my parents room and laid down on their bed. My brother soon followed to offer me a head and shoulder massage in the hopes that he could give me a little relief from the constant pain I had been living with for months. My brother began praying over me and although I don’t remember his words, I do remember the tears of desperation and hoping with all of my being that the power of his prayer would lead to that miraculous testimony I had been longing for. I was imploring the Lord for a miracle.

The next day, as I was taking a shower, fear hopelessness and suffering poured out of me in angry and desperate cries. This moment became the darkest and most isolating time I have ever experienced. The minor physical relief I felt while in the shower magnified the emotional pain of knowing that this relief was only temporary and that my quality of life would once again disintegrate as soon as I stepped out of the shower. I began to sob so uncontrollably that my mom and dad heard me from the living room. My mom opened the bathroom door and hesitantly asked me if I was ok and I could barely choke out a “no.” She offered me an over-sized fresh towel, but I was well beyond physical comforts. Soon, my husband came into the bathroom. He pulled back the curtain and said, “Renee’ talk to me.” All I could utter, over and over and over as I held myself in the fetal position on the shower floor, was

I can’t go on….I’m giving up…I can’t go on….I’m giving up…I can’t go on…I’m giving up.”

I explained that if this was living, then I did NOT want to live and that Isaac deserved a mommy who could care for him, play with him, laugh with him. I told him that the only future my mind’s eye held was one where I lied in a bed watching Isaac grow up while he watched me whither into nothingness. I had come to believe that I if I went on living I would do so without being a part of my son’s life and that I couldn’t bare the thought of deteriorating in front of him. I can say without any dramatization that in that moment I wanted to die and I was ready to go…begging The Lord to take me and my suffering and the suffering I was causing and would continue to cause to those who loved me. With fear and determination in his eyes, Pete said, “I will not listen to you talk like this! I will not let you give up or let go. You’re going to get dressed and we’re going for a walk right now.” We took that walk while I barely had the strength to hold myself upright but I could not be convinced there was hope so I continued to repeat,

I can’t go on….I’m giving up.”

Before my hospitalization I had been gifted a massage with a therapist who travelled to her client’s houses. Having had no improvement from the help of some of the most prominent neurologists in the country there was nothing to lose so I called the therapist and made an appointment shortly after my discharge. Just a few hours after I had proclaimed I was giving up and could not go on, the therapist (Valerie) arrived at my parents house and we met for the first time. She set up her table in my parents room and then asked permission to pray with Pete and I. The three of us stood together in unity and Valerie prayed that the massage would be physically and most importantly emotionally healing. My eyes were almost swollen shut from crying as I laid down on her table. Thirty minutes into the massage Valerie whispered, “I’m going to say something that will probably sound really strange and I hope that’s ok. I’ve never had anything like this happen before, but I feel like I need to share something with you.” Not knowing what to think or expect I tentatively responded, “ok?”

I feel your brother here and he’s saying that you have to keep going and you can’t give up. You have to keep going! You cannot give up! Have you been thinking of giving up?”

In that instant, I was released from the claws of darkness that had extinguished my hope. In that moment the belief that all was lost was replaced with a promise for the future. In that breath my faith was set in concrete and my doubt was destroyed. Without any knowledge that just hours before I had uttered those exact words, Valerie spoke Truth to my shattered heart. As tears soaked my face, I soaked in the certainty that I would see my brother again and that I would one day be an active and healthy mother to my son. Valerie continued, “Burt and The Lord want you to know that this is just for now. It is not forever. This trial will equip you to be there for others in a way that you would not have been able to without this experience. The Lord is preparing you to be a witness for others…to give hope to others. This is just for now. It is not forever.” She then asked me a question I never would’ve considered. She asked if I had believed the lies of hopelessness…if I had let the spirit of suicide into my thoughts. When I confirmed that I had been consumed by fear and despair she offered me the chance to repent. I had never before thought of the need to repent, but I realized then that I had spent months choosing to believe words from the enemy instead of the promises from My Father. Valerie lead me through a prayer asking for His forgiveness and for His strength and grace to keep my eyes on Him no matter how long my pain lingered. We prayed that I would never again enter that place of desolation and that He would make his plan for my life come alive.

I need to be clear that this supernatural experience didn’t come with physical healing. My pain did not go away. I did not start taking care of my son. I did not go back to work. This was a mental, spiritual, and emotional healing that could be physically felt by those around me. My mom later shared that after my massage she felt a dark cloud lift from our home. My husband agreed that he felt a peace in me he hadn’t had a glimpse of in months. I was a new woman inside. I had a gripping faith. My heart and mind were filled with radiant hope. I had experienced the Lord in a way I never had before and I knew I would one day be whole again. I knew my brother was with our Lord and that he was with me…with us and that one day I would see him, laugh with him, embrace him again.

Shortly after this life-changing event I shared my story with a dear friend. We both cried as I recounted the supernatural change that had taken place in me and then she told me something that made my encounter with The Lord even more genuine and powerful. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had been at my parent’s house the night my brother prayed over me. She had stopped by to drop off groceries and was told I was in my parent’s room laying down. I recalled someone had been holding my hand while my brother prayed and at the time I assumed it was my mother. My friend shared with me that when she walked into the room there was a wall of suffocating darkness and that it felt like she had walked into my funeral. She said the oppression was palpable and in that moment she knew I was fighting a spiritual battle as well as a physical one. When she left the house she told her husband, “we have to pray for Renee’. She is in a fight for her life.” That night, my friend sensed the destruction I was succumbing to. She had a glimpse of my desire to give up. As she told me her experience I was overcome with awe at the realization that her visit that night and the desperate prayers that followed were a spiritual intervention that literally lifted me from the cold shadows my heart and mind had staggered through for months. It was the very next day that my life was changed forever and I was saved from fear, wariness, and death. When I didn’t have the fortitude to pray there were so many others interceding for me and I will always be grateful for their faithfulness because it was their belief that saved me from my disbelief. It was their conviction that lifted me up to meet and know my God and Savior in a way that transformed me from the inside out.

Even with my heart and soul altered forever I was still living with constant pain and In mid-February, I received a dreaded call from my employer telling me that if I didn’t return to work in 1 week then my job would no longer be protected. As I heard those words from HR, I had 2 thoughts: “This is it, the life I’ve known is over” and then, “Renee’, this is it, God has a plan for your life and you are not in control.” I don’t memorize Bible verses, but my massage therapist later quoted Jeremiah 29:11, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but that verse came alive for me and was branded on my soul the split second I heard that I was days away from losing my job. I finally embraced the realization that if I could will myself well it would’ve happened months ago. I acknowledged that I was not in control of what life doled out, but that I could choose how I reacted to the hand I was dealt. I had a choice…I could crumble, lose all hope once again, and accept that the life I dreamed of was over, or I could let it all go, step away from the helm and TRUST that God had a plan for my life and that His plan is always good. Again I felt that supernatural peace and strength wash over me. I realized during that phone call that I truly had no authority over how my life would proceed, but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was surrounded by love, and that no matter what happened to my health or my job, The Lord had a plan and he would give me the strength and grace to see that plan through. I felt this truth (Jeremiah 29:11) in my inner core…a truth that gave me a peace so real that I can only describe it as being from God. I spent the rest of the day struggling with how I would tell my husband that I would most likely be unemployed soon, but when I finally gained the courage to say the words out loud, he also sensed that same inexplicable, “crazy” peace. We just KNEW that we KNEW that we would be okay. My husband and I decided that I would attempt to go back to work the following week and we remained prepared to accept that this probably would not be a successful endeavor. The day before my return was like every other day had been. I had the same level of pain and found it difficult to imagine that the next day of waking up early, getting ready, driving myself into work and starting a brand new job would be any degree of manageable. The night before, I took my regular handful of sedating drugs and my nightly bath, but then something different happened. I went to bed with more peace than I had felt in 5 months. As I fell asleep I said a prayer of gratitude. I was thankful that I no longer felt the urge to control what happened to me and that I could unreservedly rest in The Lord and His plans for my life. I could see that He had used my brokenness for something good. He had used this chapter in my life to deliver me from the prison of worry and fear. Releasing apprehension and anxiety from my daily routine was a freedom I had never had in my life. Roman 5:3-4 says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” I was nowhere near rejoicing, but I could finally see how He was using this time in my life to transform me, and I could finally lean into my faith with confidence, because He had made himself so real to me through this trial. The weight of worry had been lifted and I felt lighter.

When I woke up the next morning I was pain free for the first time in 159 days!

I arrived at my new job and although the familiar pain visited me throughout the day, it never came close to what I had withstood day in and day out for 5 months. February 28th, 2014 was the day I finally saw a glimpse of the goodness God had in store for me and I believed God wasn’t just going to give me the strength to live through the pain…He was going to see me through to the other side, and all the while I would be made stronger through the journey. On my way home that day I called the same friend who had been my prayer warrior for so many months and I cried as soon as I heard her voice. I was so overwhelmed with disbelief that I could barely get the words out, “it’s a miracle! There’s no other way to explain it. It’s a miracle! My pain level is manageable! I’m going to be ok! I worked….I can’t believe it…I worked! God is so faithful!” It had been so long since I had been capable of functioning at this level, that I couldn’t stop repeating, “I can’t believe this!” When I walked through my parent’s front door I saw them standing in the foyer anxiously waiting for me to return. I don’t think I was able to get a word out before we were tightly holding onto each other. I realize now that they were there because they knew I would either be ready to celebrate or in urgent need of comforting. I was finally able to tell my parents that I had turned a corner and that one day I would be myself again. The gratefulness, relief and joy we all felt stunned us into silence. The following 7-8 months, I continued to have significant daily pain, but NEVER resembling those previous distressing months. I continued with medications that made me feel terrible and injections in my head to help control the pain, but none of that weighed me down because I was ecstatic to be living again and to be walking with The Lord. We moved back home and began to see our little family develop the way we had always envisioned. I felt nothing but gratitude on the days I would work long hours and then arrive home to take care of my son, because this was far more life than I thought I would ever be capable of living. Even with chronic pain, I was finally in a place where I could be a mother, I could spend time with my family and friends, I could work again!

 

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Home from work and enjoying time with my son!

With several years passing it has become easier to forget how far I’ve come and how much has changed. I must remember what I’ve survived. In 2017 and for every year hereafter, it is my desire to use these lessons in life to shift my perspective to what really matters and avoid complaining about the things that don’t. I also want to use these lessons to remain mindful of the many priceless yet mundane experiences that make up this crazy life. I want to BE PRESENT. I must always remember that right here, right now is precious and beautiful and should never be taken for granted. And, when dark times visit again (which they most certainly will in this damaged world), I must remember that no matter how torn I feel or how dark the clouds around me, The Lord has a plan for my life and it is always good. I am thankful for a testimony I can share with passion and authenticity!

View More: http://sonshinegirlsphotography.pass.us/baby-sonoma

It is amazing how much can change in 3 years. God has blessed me with this beautiful family and I am forever grateful for His goodness!

Tao of Toddlers

My 2 year old son, Isaac was doing his very best to patiently wait for his cousin Brayden after a basketball game. I use the term “patiently” loosely, as Isaac was running the length of the gym , sliding feet first into the mirrored walls on each side, and then licking said mirrors, all while laughing hysterically. Then, Isaac spied his favorite thing….older kids doing something without him (how dare they!). Isaac is drawn to older kids like a moth to a flame, desiring to do everything they do regardless of how complicated or dangerous the activity might be. An adorable 4 y/o boy and 6 y/o girl were playing a game of tag, and Isaac immediately began his attempt to keep up, running as quickly as his little legs would carry him. He was completely oblivious to the fact that he was being ignored and was in no way a part of their game. It took a few minutes before the older boy finally acknowledged Isaac. This sweet, age-appropriate bossy boy, pointed his finger at my son’s chest and said, “we’re not playing with you. It’s just me and her playing…not you!” I watched from afar as Isaac tried to understand what he was being told. The boy attempted to confirm that Isaac understood the limits he had just set. He stopped pointing his finger and made the fatal mistake of raising both arms, shrugging, and saying, “ok?” This was the moment Isaac decided that a hug was clearly the appropriate response. Isaac gave both kids a big squeeze as if they had just nominated him President of their exclusive “We’re Older and Bigger Than You” club. Within minutes, the hearts of the older kids visibly softened as they began to make room for Isaac in their play. The older boy took Isaac by the hand, guided him to “base” and then taught him how to tag. My sweet son decided that tagging should be hugging instead, which they graciously tolerated. Even when Isaac began tagging his own reflection in the mirror, they laughed with him and then patiently redirected him to their game. By the end of the evening these 3 beautiful children were friends. My heart melted as I watched this loving interaction and I was struck at how 3 young children had innocently illustrated the power of loving-acceptance and kindness. I couldn’t help but think of my own life and the times I have reacted to others in a way that wasn’t at all what I hope to model for my son.

Watching these kiddos taught me:

  1. When we judge, we lose the opportunity to forge a new friendship
  2. We can be forgiven for our misguided behaviors and thoughts
  3. Someone “different” can teach us a new way to play the game of life
  4. Loving someone who has hurt us can heal more than one heart
  5. We must believe we’re worthy before expecting others to believe the same
  6. When we are vulnerable we find ourselves loving others before judging them
  7. It’s easy to love those who are kind to us. It’s courageous to love those who hurt us

I’ve hoped to model for my son a love for others that is fearless and authentic and vulnerable, but as I watched this evening unfold, I realized that these qualities already live and breathe in young children. They don’t need adults to demonstrate these virtues, they need us to foster and protect them, as they face the hurts and disappointments that come with growing older. What I thought was my responsibility to teach my son, was actually a lesson I needed to learn from him.

The next time I’m tempted to judge someone, I’ll think of these 3 children and remain open to experiencing a new (and possibly more joyful) way of approaching life. And, the next time someone tells me that I don’t belong, I’ll remember that the most appropriate response is to love them anyway!