Walking the Dog: Thoughts on Love, Politics, and Dog Poo

I caved in a couple weeks ago. I had (foolishly) promised my daughter last year that, one day, we could maybe possibly think about getting her a little puppy. Elysia is nothing if not persistent; since then she has been asking a few times a month when we will be able to visit the animal shelter. In a moment of paternal weakness, I decided to pick her up from school on my day off and run her by the local shelter. You know, just to look. 

I gave her the lecture as we stepped out the car: "We're not getting a dog today. We're just here to look and to learn." She nodded in full agreement.

Thirty minutes later I was filling out puppy adoption papers. As my daughter stared at me with wide, pleading eyes, I gave her the second lecture: "If you take this puppy home, you have to understand it is your responsibility. You will walk him, feed him, train him, clean up his poop, all of it. Understood?" She nodded in full agreement.

We brought Scotch (as in "Butterscotch," not "On The Rocks") home that evening. Within 48 hours I was cursing the special place in my heart over which my 11-year-old daughter seems to have full control.  The house training, the constant chewing on anything within reach, the yelping whenever Elysia walks out of the room...it's all just a little too much added stress for our family to handle.

Even Elysia wore down pretty quickly on the idea of dog ownership. I have been on her almost non-stop to play with the puppy, take it for a walk, feed it, clean up his "accidents," and generally keep an eye on it. I continually interrupt her free time to make sure she is looking after the pup. After just a couple days she spouted in frustration, "Why are you being so hard on me?"  

Elysia liked the idea of a puppy, but not the work of it. Not the real, time consuming, spend your energies and forgo your comforts, clean up crap kind of work. Owning a puppy is great in theory: she envisioned the part of the puppy that is playing fetch, snuggling on the couch, sleeping with her in bed. But it's the other stuff - the difficult, time-consuming, messy stuff; the walks, the training, the cleaning - that make the snuggles possible.

Church, America is our puppy. More specifically, the people of America - our neighbors, our leaders, our prisoners, our immigrants, our homeless, our CEO's - they are our puppy. Regardless of where you land politically or which candidate you voted for - but, I would contend, especially if you voted for President-elect Donald Trump - there is a call on your life as a follower of Christ to be a peacemaker and a bridge-builder. Our words of assurance and placating posts on social media are not cutting it. The world does not need our words right now; they need our love. Our real, tangible, actionable love. 

My fear, however, is that we as Christians in America are more like my daughter than we'd care to admit. The easiest - and possibly the least helpful - thing in the world is for us, the Church, to say "I love you." At this time, with all the hurt and fear and mistrust that are so prevalent, those words are empty. They are, quite frankly, unbelievable. You can say it in all sincerity, but the words just aren't enough anymore. They never were. It is not enough for you or I to say, "I love you if you are Muslim." It's not enough to say, "I love you if you are gay." Fill in the blank: disabled, poor, abused, imprisoned, foreigner, refugee, gender-anything-but-what-I-think-is-normal. It's not enough to think it, believe it, or say it. 

Most of us in the Church genuinely like the idea of love. We like the idea of loving all people in spite of differences and divisions. We like the idea of love; we just don't like the work of it. Not the real, long-suffering, step outside your comfort zone, paradigm shattering, wade into the mess of human emotion kind of love work. Loving all people regardless and in spite of differences is great in theory, but without action love isn't love. Not really.

So my challenge is this, for myself as much as for anyone else: if you are a Christian, it's time to walk the dog. It's time to go and learn what it means to love mercy and to seek justice. Love in action, love that changes things, will mean inconvenience. We're going to have to open doors, go places we'd rather not go, seek out friendships in unlikely places, and learn to not have all the answers. Love is hard and it is time-consuming and it is messy. We have to learn that, seek that, and own that. Until we do, our words and Facebook posts will mean nothing. 

We can't snuggle the puppy if we're not willing to first bend down and pick up some crap along the way.

Super Babies and Elephant Men

Have you ever wondered what it would look like if Bruno Mars’s voice married Rachel McAdams’ smile and they had baby who could dance like Justin Timberlake? I know, I wonder that, too. Like, all the time. I mean, it’s like piling perfection upon perfection upon perfection. .

But that begs the question…if there could be a Bruno McAdams “Happy Feet” Timberlake who possessed a full measure of beauty, charm, charisma, and talent, what would his/her doppelgänger look like? What I mean is this: what would it look like if you piled the ugliest parts of human nature into human form? Pain, violence, hatred, shame, anger, guilt, lust, pride: if all these things put together had a face, who – or what – would that look like?

The closest thing I can imagine is Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the Elephant Man; a man so disturbingly ugly and deformed that the only possible reaction to seeing him would be shock, horror, maybe even becoming physically ill at the sight. We would point fingers. We would mock. We would hurl insults. We would steer clear. But a man like that would never be given a chance – jobs, relationships, friendship, nothing.

And yet, nestled in the narrative of Joseph Merrick’s life is the story of Mrs. Leila Maturin, a young woman who, knowing that Merrick had never had the opportunity to speak with a woman face to face, agreed to meet him in the hospital. Merrick was apparently so overcome with emotion at the kindness and grace shown to him by this young lady that the meeting was cut short. The profundity of that moment, however, instilled in him a new sense of life and confidence in himself: the kind of confidence that allows a man to see value in himself and to live another day.

That, I think, is what grace looks like.

It’s easy to love the beautiful things of this world. It’s harder to love the broken. It’s near impossible to love the unlovable. Yet that’s exactly what Jesus calls us to do. 

A few years ago, Jeremy Cowart, world-renowned photographer, artist, and hope-instiller, created a project called Deep Dark Blackness for People of the Second Chance that tried to capture this concept of radical grace. His piece was a reminder that what this world needs most is people who are willing to hold hands with those whose hands seem un-holdable. Check it out, if you're willing. Live it out, if you're daring. 

Kids and Bombs, Questions and Kings

Sunday marked the 15-year anniversary of 9/11, the day that will forever be etched into our nation's collective memory. Over the past couple of days, I've had the opportunity to talk about the terrorist attacks with my children, as we do ever year when September rolls around. While driving my eldest child to Boy Scouts last night, he began talking freely about it, describing a documentary that his class had started watching. I was thankful for the opportunity to process the realities of evil and grief with him, and it brought to mind a conversation he and I had a couple of years ago. The day after a bomb was detonated at the 2013 Boston Marathon, Evan and I talked about terrorism, and I detailed the conversation in a blog post. I repost it here because I needed to remember, and because it is relevant to 9/11, to ISIS, and to any other time when evil rears its ugly head.  

Image via ABCNews

Image via ABCNews

Yesterday evening, I sat in my living room with my 9-year-old son, Evan. My wife had the news turned on and, naturally, they were running a story on the Boston Marathon bombing. As Evan tuned in and watched the video footage in silence, Erica looked at him and asked, “Do you know what is happening here? Did you hear about this at school?”

Evan replied that he had heard about the bombing, and proceeded to recount his understanding of the tragedy. He pretty much knew all he needed to. Some sicko planted a couple bombs in a crowd and blew some people to bits.

As we moved to the kitchen table to enjoy microwaved hotdogs and leftover corn-on-the-cob, I asked Evan if he had any questions about what he saw on the news.

“Do they still make bombs that are black and a sphere and have a string sticking out the top that you light, and that can also float?”

“No, buddy. I don’t think they really look like that anymore.”

“Oh.” Pause. Then, “Dad?”

“Yes, Evan?”

“Why would someone want to bomb a race?”

And there was the question I knew would come. It was the question that our country was asking on Monday. It was the question that seemed to awake and roll around in our collective consciousness first thing Tuesday morning, even before we managed to hit the snooze alarm to delay the start of a new day.

Why?

And as we all ask ourselves this question, knowing that no answer will ever truly satisfy us, we find that it is the same question we ask ourselves every day in a thousand different ways.

  • Why would someone bomb the Boston Marathon?
  • Why would someone open fire in an elementary school?
  • Why would she cheat on me?
  • How could he snip the spinal cords and murder countless babies?
  • Why would they fly planes into the World Trade Center?
  • Why did he kill millions of Jews?
  • Why does he hit me?
  • Why?…

As my son stared up at me from behind those adorable little boy glasses, I gave the only answer that I could.

“Because we all need a savior, Evan. Whoever did this was so broken, so lost, so hurt, so angry, that he didn’t know what else to do. Whatever he was thinking or feeling, I guess he just thought that if he hurt a bunch a people he would somehow feel better.”

“And does he feel better now?” my son quickly asked.

“Maybe. For a minute. He did what he planned to do. But there is always more loneliness and hurt and pain. He won’t feel better for long. None of us do. Which is exactly why we need a savior. We all need someone who is bigger and better and greater than anything we can ever do or think to try to make ourselves feel ok.”

“You mean Jesus?”

“Yes. See, bud, there are lots of people in this world who don’t believe Jesus is who he said he is. They don’t believe that he is the King. So without a real King, all these people just try to do whatever they want and believe whatever they want to try and make themselves feel better. Some people do great things with their lives. Things like curing diseases and helping the poor and trying to make people smile.”

“And like creating video games?”

“Exactly. But other people do horrible things, like bullying or hurting people.”

“Like the bomb.”

“Like the bomb. But the thing is, Evan, is that the good things and the bad things, they are all the same. The horrible things seem horrible to us, but even the good things aren’t enough to save us. Even the best person in world is broken. Even the happiest kid in the world, like you, is going to smack his sister every once in a while. Every single one of us is the same. It’s hard to imagine, but you and I are no better than the people who made those bombs. Because unless we let the King be the King, then it means we are trying to be the king. And you can’t have two kings.”

“Like in chess?”

“Check mate.”

“But the queen is more powerful in chess…”

“Ok, so not like chess. But when something like this happens, it doesn’t surprise me. It makes me sad, but it doesn’t surprise me. See, unless people believe in Jesus; unless people let him be their King; unless people in the world start to realize that we really do need someone to save us – that we will never be able to save ourselves; unless we can do that, then there will always be bombs and killings and sister-smackings.”

“So….if someone had told that guy about Jesus, then maybe he wouldn’t have made those bombs and killed those people?”

Exactly.

I'm Feeling 22

I was in middle school in 1990, which means that I had crush on Winnie Cooper, the on-again-off-again girlfriend of The Wonder Years' protagonist, Kevin Arnold. 

In 2016, NOVA published a video starring Danica McKellar, the actress who played Winnie Cooper, all grown up and good at math. In the short segment, Danica shares about the challenges she faced trying to find her identity outside of the Wonder Years. The question plaguing her thoughts was, "Who else would I be if I didn't have this role?" Even as a student at UCLA, she was constantly (and only) recognized as Winnie. At first, that kind of fame would have been flattering; after a while, however, it got old. Winnie Cooper was the identity she couldn't shake. Nothing against Winnie, but that wasn't who she really was, it wasn't who she wanted to be, nor was it who she knew she could be.

Danica goes on to share about the moment when she felt her identity change. She nailed a college math test, scoring a 22 on the exam and crushing the rest of the class. The first time she was recognized as "the girl who got a 22" and not "the girl from The Wonder Years" was a defining moment. This "22 Moment" was the beginning of a new identity, her new self. She was no longer Winnie Cooper; she was Danica McKellar, the mathematician. 

You and I were never child TV stars, so our identity issues are probably not as pronounced as Danica's was. Nevertheless, we all know what it's like to have our identity wrapped up in something unfulfilling or even undesirable. They may not all be negative experiences, though many times those pieces of us are; regardless, they attach to us like a nickname, inextricably binding themselves to us. The divorced, single mother; the high school quarterback; the CEO; the alcoholic; the class clown; the out-of-work husband. Those are not who we are, and they don't define us. At best, our self-worth is wrapped up in a kind of performance-based role; at worst we see ourselves as a product of things that happen to us.  

The good news is that it is possible to have our identity re-formed. Each and every one of us can, like Danica, have a "22 moment" - a moment where we realize we no longer have to be bound by our past damages or achievements. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come!" The moment that we place our faith in Christ as our Lord and Savior, we become his. That doesn't mean we become a better, more moral or spiritual version of ourselves; it means that we become a new creation altogether. Who or what we were before that has passed away, and we are made brand new - born again - in Christ. We are no longer defined by our achievements, which means that we don't have to feel pressure to continue success in order to have self-worth. We are also no longer defined by sin - by the things we have done or the things that have been done to us; instead, we are defined only as belonging to Christ. Freedom!

Regardless of where you find yourself today, you can have a "22 moment." Remember that you belong to Christ and that in Him you are a new creation. You belong to him and to his Father. Remind yourself of that often - every moment of every day, if you need to. Breathe it in, rest in it, and live it out. The old has gone, the new has come!

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22...and it feels like freedom!

The Antidote to Fear

Recently my family took a vacation to Flagstaff, Arizona, where we spent some time taking in the majesty of the Grand Canyon, as well as other sights in the area. We found ourselves one morning in Sedona at Slide Rock State Park, where water flow and rock formations create a natural water slide set against the most scenic backdrop imaginable. At one section of the river, children and adults alike lined up on the edge of the rocky overlook above the river, some 10-12 feet in the air, and jumped off into the water below. To my surprise, my 10-year-old daughter, who I assumed would approach such a stunt with great trepidation, lined right up and jumped in without hesitation. I had seen her attempt other feats much more cautiously, so what was it that allowed her to jump without pause? Was she more fearless than I realized?

In his excellent book on organizational culture and inspiration, Creativity, Inc., Pixar President Ed Catmull makes the profound statement that "the antidote to fear is trust." His point is made in reference to creativity and risk-taking in the workplace, suggesting that environments where employees trust their managers, leaders, and processes will wield more authenticity and originality than cultures where fear and mistrust persist. 

The antidote to fear is trust. It's a statement that immediately resonated with me as both obvious and accurate. I have often heard or assumed that the antidote (or near-opposite) of fear is having courage, or that having courage somehow eliminates - or at least mitigates - the fear one experiences in a given moment. Catmull's point, however, is that fear is a human instinct and can never truly be eradicated. What we need is not to become fearless, per se, but to loosen the grip that fear has on us.  That happens when we have something or someone to trust in. My daughter could jump off a cliff because she had seen so many others do it. She trusted that it was safe and that the water would catch her. A bungee jumper dives from a bridge because he trusts that the cord will hold. 

One of the most common phrases in the Bible is, "Fear not." This command, and other variations of it, occur hundreds of times throughout Scripture. Over and over again, when people are facing all kinds of trials, God's first word to us often seems to be, "Fear not."

  • To the mother afraid for the life of her child, "Fear not." (Genesis 21:17)
  • To those facing threats from their enemies, "Fear not." (Exodus 14:13)
  • To those who would speak up for justice and truth, "Fear not." (Deuteronomy 1:17)
  • To those who ride into battles of any sort, "Fear not." (Deuteronomy 20:1)
  • To those facing persecution, "Fear not." (1 Samuel 23:17)
  • To those who can't see a way out of their predicament, "Fear not." (2 Kings 6:16)
  • To those who worry about provision, "Fear not." (Luke 12:22-24)
  • To those who pray for a miracle, "Fear not." (Luke 8:50)

On and on the list could go. Interestingly, on the other side of every one of these "Fear not" statements is an affirmation that God is powerful and in control of everything. The reason we need not fear is, as Catmull suggests, because we can have trust in God. The essence of what God is communicating in each circumstance is that we can trust Him. In all things, in all circumstances, with all questions, we can trust Him. Thus, the more we know God and know of Him, the more fear will loosen it's grip on us. 

The antidote to fear is trust. In Whom or in what do you trust?

When I am afraid, I will trust in you / In God, whose Word I praise / In God I will trust; I will not be afraid. - Psalm 56:3-4a
 

Raw Fish and Worship

I first tried sushi about five years ago and found it to be not nearly as terrifying as I anticipated. Two years later, I found myself dining in Nashville with a sushi connoisseur who talked me through some of the finer points of Japanese cuisine and fully converted me to #teamsushi. When a hibachi restaurant opened up near my house a couple years ago, I was there on opening day to sample the sushi with a friend. That became a weekly fix for us, and was dubbed “Sushi Thursday.” I have never been a “foodie,” so to speak, but for the first time in my life I thought about and talked about food obsessively! I was an addict!

Raw fish reminded me that a small shift in my affections can drastically transform me over time. Sushi was a simple picture of how affections steer our focus, and an increased focus also increases our desire. Soon, our thoughts, actions, and emotions become so tied up in that thing - whatever it is - that it becomes part of who we are. For better or for worse, we make decisions that often defy logic (at one time I was spending upwards of $50/week on sushi alone, despite the fact that my wife and I were on a tight budget to pay off a significant home renovation project), and even the most negative consequences or rational arguments are not enough to alter our course.

That’s how I developed a taste for sushi, it’s how I fell in love with my wife, and it’s why I became a pastor. It's why people get married, and, sadly, it's the reason so many marriages fall apart. 

Photo credit: JAPANKURU, Get your Eat on @ Shabu-Shabu & Sushi Hassan via Photopin

Photo credit: JAPANKURU, Get your Eat on @ Shabu-Shabu & Sushi Hassan via Photopin

I grew up in the Church and can't remember a time where I didn't know - or at least know of - God. I always had faith, always wanted to please God, and always understood that actions - good, sinful, or somewhere in between - had eternal ramifications. The older I grew, the more I understood of God's character and heart. Simultaneously, I became more and more aware of my own brokenness and sinfulness. For years I wrestled with a constant tension: how can I know things to be true about God and His kingdom and yet so consistently say and do things that stand in complete opposition to those beliefs?

I felt like a hypocrite. Maybe I was one. Anyone observing my life at any given moment would most likely find my trajectory and decision making to be at odds with that which I claimed to believe. It was classic "do as I say and not as I do" Christianity. My faith was first and foremost intellectual. Coming in at a distant second was my practical faith - the way my beliefs manifested themselves in my day to day life. Buried somewhere underneath all of that was my emotional faith - the raw heartbeat for the things of God. (This is not to suggest that I think the human spirit can be compartmentalized into such neat divisions; rather, it's attempt to understand why I found myself resonating so strongly with Paul's struggle in Romans 7).

At some point in my early twenties, I started to come to terms with the fact that I simply didn't love God like I thought I did. I wanted to love God more than anything, but it simply wasn't true. My heart was fickle and was too wrapped up in things of this world. I began praying a simple, yet honest prayer: "God, help me fall in love with you." For the first time in my life I stopped praying for self-control or will power or strength to stay the course, and instead began to seek after a nothing more than a heart that burned for God.

Nothing helped shape and lead that passion and love more than learning how to worship. It was during that season of my life that I abandoned once and for all the teenage dream of being a songwriter and touring with a rock band. My love for music and affecting hearts with lyrics and melodies found new life as I stepped into the role of Worship Leader for our church. This affection suddenly had a new focus that had nothing to do with self-promotion, merchandising, or gig-booking; instead, the singular aim was to fix my heart and mind on Jesus, and to help a church to do the same. As I worshiped, God became more clear, more real. His presence was felt in ways I had never experienced. I began to long for the weekends, the time when corporate worship would echo off the walls of our small theater. 

Worship was the action, the response, that stirred my heart towards God. It's how I learned to love Him, first. Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created us in His image. When we worship God - when our affections, thoughts, feelings, and actions are stirred towards Him - we increasingly take on that God-shape in our lives. And in giving us His image, God also gave us His purpose. God commanded the first people to “be fruitful and multiply,” thereby spreading His image and glory throughout the Earth. Jesus did the same thing with His followers, telling them to multiply disciples in His image to the ends of the Earth.

We worship what we love, and we become like what we worship. That is the way we spread God’s glory, and it’s why He calls us worship Him. If you have ever found yourself living in that kind of tension between thought and action, let me encourage you to learn to worship. Don't force it and don't put a time table on it. Infuse the journey with grace. Allow your affections to be stirred for God, and your actions will follow. 

I've Never Felt Less Like Jesus

Our second foster care placement came just two months after the first. We were still readjusting to life with an infant when our worker called with another child needing care, this one fourteen months old. The worker sounded desperate. I made a quick phone call to Erica to talk it over. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: "Can we take a 16-month-old boy?"

Her: "I don't know. What do you think?"

Me: "Where would we put him? Does he need his own room?"

Her: "Nope. The babies can share a room. Do you think we can handle another?"

Me: "We're crushing this right now. Why not?"

Her: "Okey dokie."

Saving the world one child at a time, we thought.

It was a Monday when we arrived at the Cabinet, where we were ushered back to a conference room and seated across the table from a mother and her young son. A social worker - not ours and not his - stood silently at the door. Awkward silence gave way to ice-breaking questions. Johnny* watched shows on his mom's phone and bonked his head on things as he walked around. After 30 or 40 minutes, the social worker spoke up.

"There's no one else coming. You can leave whenever you want." Awkward.

We walked outside, where Johnny's mother broke into tears, weeping hysterically as she buckled her son into the back of our car. "Please don't cut his hair!" she begged though tears as I closed the door. What do you say to a mother when you are about to drive away with temporary guardianship of her kid? I glanced at Erica, who was fighting back tears but failing miserably. It isn't typical to have the biological parents present when the foster parents take custody of their children. Now I know why.

I pulled out of the parking lot while Erica sobbed in the passenger seat, her heart breaking. As difficult as it was to experience this moment, it left us with a resolve to love this kid well and to support the mother however we could, so that the two could be reunited as soon as possible.

The next three weeks were the hardest I can remember in the life of our family. We had just added a non-verbal toddler to a household that was already in a state of change. The Winter had brought us our first placement, a newborn, which should have been enough of a shock to parents whose kids had been pouring their own cereal and dressing themselves for the last 6 years. As if that wasn't enough of an adjustment, I had, just a week after that, started a position at a new church. It was a healthy change, but one that brought with it a new 45 minute commute and an imminent move to a new city. Erica did all she could do to keep us above water as we tried to get the house ready to sell in the midst of all the chaos. 

Photo credit: Andrew Seaman, Ezra in the basement via photopin

Photo credit: Andrew Seaman, Ezra in the basement via photopin

Within 24 hours of bringing a second foster child into our home, we questioned if we had bitten off more than we could chew. The boy was adorable, but unable to communicate apart from screams and tears. At times, he would play happily for a couple hours on end. More often, though, he was crying. Loudly. To top it off, a violent stomach bug worked its way through our home that first week, hitting everyone in the family, foster children included. In the span of 7 days, our household saw more vomit and diarrhea-stained baby clothes than we had in the past 15 years combined.

In just a matter of days, after exhaustion was besting determination at every turn, there was a seeping realization that my heart just didn't seem to be in it. Emotionally, I had not attached to Johnny like I did to Miggy. Perhaps it was the stress level in our house that seemed to hang steadily at Code Red, or maybe it was because I knew that Johnny's presence in our home was almost assuredly going to be temporary; regardless, I did not feel love towards Johnny like I did my other children. When I had to clean diarrhea out of the crib...again; or when he woke us all up screaming (baby included) at 2:00am...again; or when he wandered around the house crying inconsolably for 75 minutes on end...again, I found myself becoming resentful of his biological mother. She had been irresponsible, and now it's me changing the diapers and losing this sleep. It should be her. Now, these weren't constant thoughts - they were hardly conscious ones. These were the thoughts that crept into my mind in the darkness and sleeplessness and in the moments of pure chaos. Nevertheless, they were real, and I had to deal with them.

Erica and I found ourselves in our first real struggle as foster parents. How was it possible that we could bring one baby home and love him immediately as our own, but then add another child into the mix and feel little sense of connection to him? I felt guilty and ashamed for my lack of affection toward the toddler. We decided to give it a week - not to see if we would feel anything towards Johnny, but to see if we could hold him without breaking ourselves. By Saturday, we knew it was too much. All of our energy and attention was being poured out onto this child. Whatever we had left in the tank was spent taking care of the baby, who thankfully was peaceful and content. Our eldest two children were all but neglected. The only thing they received from us during this time was additional housework.

We contacted our R&C worker first thing Monday morning to put in a two-week notice requesting a new placement for Johnny. We had failed. At least, that's what it felt like. We failed the mother, we failed Johnny, we failed our social worker, and we were failing our family. The promises we had made in silence as we drove out of that parking lot just days prior had quickly been replaced by silent curses of desperation.

For two more weeks, we cared for Johnny, enjoying some moments of playful fun, but mostly counting down the sleepless nights until he would be moved to a new home. We felt horrible, but all we could think about was catching our breath. James 1:27 had been a guiding force for us in becoming foster parents: pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress. Foster care was supposed to be something that drew us closer to the heart of God. During those days, however, the truth is that I had never felt less like Jesus. Our emotions and tempers hung by a thread, and the slightest incident could sever all brain-to-mouth filters. Erica and I tried our best to serve one another through mutual exhaustion, but our relationship lacked any sense of affection or kindness. Self-preservation was the name of the game, and we were united and motivated only by the thought that the end was in sight.

Our two weeks came to a close, and a new placement had been found. As we dropped Johnny off with his ongoing worker the next morning, I felt relieved and ashamed. Erica cried. We had just done what we had both previously thought was unthinkable: we had welcomed a child in need into our home, and then sent him away because we couldn't handle him. I thought back to the ten weeks of training that we had worked through 9 months prior as part of our licensing. "Know your family," the instructor had told us over and over. Our exuberance and idealism about impacting young lives through radical, sacrificial love came crashing down to reality when presented with the wisdom of the age-old axiom: Never take temporary guardianship of two children under the age of 16 months while simultaneously changing jobs and trying to get a house ready to list on the market. 

Three weeks with Johnny almost pushed us to the breaking point as a family. But those days also gave us clarity about a number of other things, not the least of which were our limitations as parents. All things considered, that's a valuable lesson. As we walked away from the wreckage of that experience, we were also all the more determined to love well those who were in our charge: our kids, Miggy, one another.

Saving the world, one child at a time. It's not a bad approach, really. 


* The names of our foster children will always be protected online. This little feller was our second placement, John Adams was the second President of the USA...so we'll go with Johnny.

Sunburned Drifters and Soap Sud Beards

One of the weirdest and, in my opinion, most oddly hilarious characters ever to appear on Saturday Night Live was Stefon Zelesky, played by Bill Hader. Stefon was a club kid who would join Seth Meyers from time to time as a city correspondent on the Weekend Update to give viewers the low-down on the latest and greatest (and fake) underground clubs in New York City. Stefon had the skinny on the hippest and most elusive party scene in the Big Apple; without his insider information, none of us would have a clue that these clubs existed, much less have access to them. 

During one episode, Stefon introduced us to the club Crease. "This place has everything," he said. "Lights, psychos, Furbies, screaming babies in Mozart wigs, sunburned drifters with soap sud beards."

"Soap sud beards?" Seth interrupted.

"You know, that thing where the hobo becomes a rich man, so they take that big bubble bath?"

(Side note, if I had won the billion dollar Powerball earlier this year and was asked by a reporter what I was going to do with the money, I was definitely going to say "soap sud beard"!)

Image via NBC.com

Image via NBC.com

Stefon's club scene was ludicrous and nonsensical, but always good for a laugh. The image of a hobo taking a giant bubble bath strikes an especially funny chord simply because we are so familiar with that "Trading Places" kind of plot line: a rich man trades places with a poor man and through the experience they both end up finding their own kind of redemption. The premise itself is as almost as absurd as a screaming baby with a Mozart wig. What billionaire would give it all up and trade places with a sunburned drifter?

And then I remember that I am the sunburned drifter. And that I have been given keys to the mansion, giant bath tub and all.

At the risk of sounding irreverent, I think that Jesus would do well filling in for Stefon on the Weekend Update one of these days. There's a pretty amazing party called Kingdom I'm sure he'd like to tell us aboutand while the invitation list is wide open, you do have to know the right person in order to find your way in. And, like Crease, this place is going to be full of sunburned drifters with soap sud beardsEvery single guest at the party has been dirt poor and covered in filth; but the club owner traded his riches for our rags, and we get to trade our ashes of mourning for a crown of beauty, and our despair for a garment of joy. 

The party starts now, and closing time is never. Furbies not included.

When God Hardens a Heart

Not long ago, I had a conversation with one of the most incredible people I've ever had the privilege of meeting. Garnett Jones left me a voicemail one afternoon in August of this year wondering if the new campus that our church was launching would be interested in helping meet some of the needs in a local trailer park. By 10:00 the next morning she had called twice more and left another message.

"The woman is persistent, I'll give her that," I thought, tapping her number into my phone. She answered, and I introduced myself.

"Oh, thank you for calling me!" she said, excitedly. From there, Garnett jumped without hesitation onto her soapbox and for the next seven or eight minutes proceeded to tell stories, cast vision, and plead for help in her work. Unable to fully process all that she was saying at the time, and hesitant to commit too much assistance without properly assessing the real needs, I placated her with the promise to meet soon, face to face. 

For the last eleven years, Garnett has been investing all of her waking energy into a trailer park community on the outskirts of town. This particular neighborhood is one of the largest communities in our county, with a high population of hispanic families. Many of the children there speak English as a second language. Some don't speak it all. Poverty is high, literacy is low. These kids face an almost insurmountable uphill battle, but it is one that Garnett is willing to fight on their behalf. 

She has organized cookouts, recruited people for Trunk-or-Treat events, and orchestrated outdoor movie nights. Firmly and steadily pressing on the park management, she acquired donated lots on which to build a playground and soccer field. With the same determination, she rallied support from the YMCA to donate cleats, balls, and jerseys to help build a soccer league. She even managed to recruit some volunteer coaches for the in-park teams and scheduled matches against other local Rec teams. 

But that is just the beginning of Garnett's vision. Soccer is a way in, but it is not a way out. She is in talks to receive - free of charge, of course - a trailer home and a lot on which to place it. With some financial assistance (that's where we come in), she hopes to remodel the trailer as a multi-purpose facility in the middle of this community. She envisions free health screenings, immigration assistance, tutoring, English lessons, Bible studies, and so much more. If a few people - one church, perhaps - could come along side her and join this work, Garnett truly believes that this community can be transformed.

Oh, and by the way, Garnett is 84-years-old. 

Airstream 1, Miguel Tejada-Flores

Airstream 1, Miguel Tejada-Flores

My friend, Janelle, and I met up with Garnett a few weeks ago over lunch, as promised. Garnett rattled off these possibilities, and many more, barely pausing to sip from her tomato soup; Janelle and I listened in quiet awe. Occasionally she and I would glance at each other with wide-eyed wonder at the energy, determination, and unshakable compassion that this woman, well into her "retirement years," poured out each and every day, without ceasing, on behalf of those in need of an advocate. 

After casting vision and listing projects for well over forty minutes, Garnett spoke for the first time about herself. "I'm glad that you want to help," she said, "because I'm running out of time."

"Of course you're running out of time," I thought to myself. "You're 84!"

"My doctor told me I have arteriosclerosis," she continued. "The arteries in my heart are hardening, and he said I can't keep doing what I'm doing for much longer." As with everything, she spoke these words matter-of-factly. It wasn't an emotional revelation for her; it simply was what it was. 

I walked away from that conversation both encouraged and humbled. It certainly was no surprise that someone of her age would eventually need to slow down, but the irony of Garnett's condition struck me. Here is a woman who has seen the needs of others and has responded with vigor and compassion. How unfitting it is that this person who has loved so tangibly and sacrificially would be slowed, and perhaps eventually stopped, by the hardening of her heart. 

In the Bible, we are told on a number of occasions that God hardened the heart of specific people (i.e. Exodus 4:20, Deuteronomy 2:30John 12:39-40). Theologically, this is tough concept for us to fully wrap our minds around, as our perception of free-will doesn't play well with the idea that God might be interfering with our ability to choose things for ourselves. In the end, though, these passages of Scripture force us to relinquish control and trust that God's ways are higher and greater than our ways, and that in His sovereignty He is working things out for good. And that's truly what we find when we understand this concept in light of all of Scripture and eternity: when God hardens a heart it is ultimately for His glory. Every time, for all eternity. 

Truly, this is the case with Garnett. The most incredible thing about her life is not what she has been able to accomplish in a trailer park in Central Kentucky; it is the work of salvation and regeneration that God has accomplished in her that will stand out for all eternity. If/When her heart stops functioning and she passes from this life into the next, God will receive the glory for a dead soul that was made alive in Him. As she works feverishly and without ceasing, children and families are being transformed and shown the love of Christ; when she takes her final breath and enters into her Rest, all of heaven will celebrate, thanking God for His grace and mercy. Glory to God on both accounts! 


Epilogue: I happened to run into Janelle yesterday, less than 12 hours after writing an initial draft of this post. "How's Garnett?" I asked. "Have you heard from her lately?"

"Get this," Janelle smiled. "She called me the other day. Actually, her call went straight to voicemail because she was calling at 8:00am on Saturday morning and I was still in bed." Typical Garnett. "Hey, Janelle," she said. "I just wanted to let you know that I have more time. My doctor told me that my arteries are just fine right now. The hardening seems to have stopped. It looks like we can keep going for a while longer. Okay, call me back." 

To God be the glory.

 

An Empty Seat on the Plane

We boarded the plane and took our seats, thankful that, despite a steady and increasingly thick snowfall, our flight was still scheduled to depart on time. Evan had flown to New York a few times with me in the past, so he was totally cool with the boarding process and not at all concerned that his ticketed seat was a row in front of the rest of us. He would be relatively oblivious to strangers, engrossed in whatever the iPad game-du-jour happened to be. I took my seat with Elysia; I normally prefer a window seat to help prevent motion sickness, but I acquiesced to my daughter and let her have the view. We were only looking at a wing, anyway. 

As we settled in and began to taxi across the tarmac, I leaned forward to check on Evan. "You okay, bud?"

"Mmm hmm."

I paused, reflecting on the empty seat next to my 11-year-old son. His mother should be sitting there. I had her ticket in my pocket. Instead of speeding to sunny Florida at 550 miles-per-hour to kick it with Harry Potter and company for a few days, however, my bride was at home. I leaned back to my seat, letting my hand linger for a moment on the unoccupied armrest. I hated that she was not with us. I was relatively confident that I could Father my way through a vacation without backup, but I knew that she wanted to be with us. In all honesty, she probably needed the getaway more than I did.


For months we had been wanting to take a family vacation to visit some friends in Daytona and to unwind for a little bit. As we started to gain clarity about our future with the timing of a job change, Erica and I decided one night that we just needed to make it happen. It had been far too long since our last getaway as a family, and we desperately needed some time to recharge. I spent a few days scoping out options, and finally was ready to pull the trigger on a weeklong trip that included a couple of days at Universal Orlando. Our kids had just read and watched through J.K. Rowling's series for the first time, so we thought it would be great opportunity to enjoy the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. 

I sat on the couch that night one mouse click away from purchasing our plane tickets. Hesitating, I looked at Erica and asked, "Are we good?"

She stayed my finger for just a moment. "What if we get called with a placement for foster care before we leave?"

"I guess we'll just roll with it," I answered. Foster care was a priority for us, but we also didn't want to put everything on hold for what was, at the time, a completely unknown possibility. It had been well over a month since we signed our contract as a foster family and we had yet to receive a single placement.  If we happened to get called in the next few days, then we would just improvise and make it work however we needed to. Worst case scenario, we'd eat the cost of a few plane tickets.

"Let's do it," she said, with only a little hesitation.

Click. Four plane tickets in the bag.

That was on a Tuesday. On Friday, we were given a baby. When a phone call comes in for a placement, you only have moments to accept or decline the opportunity before the social worker moves on to a different home. In those brief moments on the phone, Erica and I had a thousand thoughts that we tried to process simultaneously, not the least of which was, "What about our family vacation?" My suggestion a few days ago that we "roll with it" was now out of the realm of the hypothetical and had taken on flesh and blood. In this case, "rolling with it" meant that Erica immediately knew she would not be going to Florida with the rest of us. Just like that, we began to feel the weight, the impact, and the responsibility of stepping into foster care. 

Erica had already requested vacation time for the following week; she would use that time instead to care for Miggy while I was away with the kids. That left a gap of three days where one of us needed to stay home before our scheduled departure. The leadership at my church was wonderful to us during that time. I called our Senior Pastor, Mike, as soon as I could to let him know that we would soon have a newborn baby in our house, and I asked if he would allow me to work from home for a few days so that I could care for the little guy. This, after I had given him my two-weeks notice just a few days earlier. He was extremely gracious in allowing me to fully focus on the baby without having to think about exit details. 

For the next few days, it was me and Miggy. He was an incredible baby, really. Unlike many infants who are born into foster care situations, Miguel was not addicted to any drugs. Quite the contrary, after having spent his first 10 days of life in the NICU nursery, he was on a regular schedule of sleeping and eating. All I had to do was stick to the schedule, and the boy was quite content. He was more than that: he was beautiful, and he was at peace. Though he slept in his crib quite well from the get-go, it was nevertheless difficult for me to put him down. It wasn't for fear of waking him, mind you, but simply because I didn't want to let him go. I wanted this baby boy to know the warmth and strength of being held in a father's arms, and I wanted him to hear a heartbeat that was steady, ever-present, and for him. 


The airplane was quiet at cruising altitude, save for the constant hum of the engine and the occasional cough from a passenger. Elysia sat next to me, playing Minecraft on her iPad. "My arms feel empty," I said, breaking the silence. "I've done almost nothing other than hold that baby for the last three days."

"You miss Miggy?" she asked, already knowing the answer. 

"Yeah, I really do, sweetheart."

"Me, too," she replied. "He's really cute."

The next five days were spent in two worlds. By day, I was preoccupied with entertainment: visiting friends, playing at the beach, riding roller coasters, sipping Butterbeer, cruising in the Camero convertible rental upgrade that Elysia somehow talked me into. (I told you, her smile is perfect.) By night, however, I was in agony. Erica was home alone with the baby, left to care for him 24 hours a day by herself. He was an "easy" baby, to be sure, but five days is long, long time to go without reinforcement. 

With each passing night the phone calls became more strained. Saturday's conversation was a perky FaceTime call. By Monday night, I could feel her exhaustion and frustration. I immediately messaged our friends an "SOS." The next day they were there for Erica with dinner, conversation, friendship, and nap breaks. (For anyone venturing into foster care, I highly recommend having amazing friends. They will save you over and over again.) Knowing that my wife would be taken care of gave me enough peace of mind to enjoy our final day at the theme park. Nevertheless, I could not wait to get home. We were less than two weeks into our experience as foster parents, and we were already feeling the strain on our marriage; life as it used to be was just that - a thing of the past. Things were different now, and we were going to have to learn how to "roll with it" each and every day. We are compelled to do this for the sake of the children, and with the faith that it will ultimately be to the benefit of our family, to the mission of the Gospel, and to the glory of God.

We boarded the plane on Wednesday morning, and the short flight felt like an eternity. I listened to Ed Sheeran and stared at another unoccupied plane seat in front me, counting down the minutes until our wheels would touch down and I could slide into the empty seat on the couch beside my wife. And I absolutely could not wait to snuggle that little boy into the empty space in my arms.