Monday, November 28, 2016

Books Like Lavender and Chamomile Tea

I am unapologetically opposed to thrillers right now. Horror, suspense, crime, gothic, any page-turner that might keep me awake and add stress to my life—just no. Come back another decade of my life. Maybe.

Right now I read to relax, usually for half an hour or an hour before bedtime. This year my life has been full of the little day-to-day stresses that come with small children and a part-time job, and also some bigger stressful events. I struggle with anxiety and insomnia anyway. For the last few years I’ve maintained practices that have helped keep these in check, and one of these practices is choosing to unwind with a restful activity in the evening.

Hence, reading books that are like lavender and chamomile tea. And by that I don’t mean sappy and sentimental—that would be more irritating than relaxing, to me at least—but truly good fiction and nonfiction books that provoke thought and bring enjoyment.

I haven’t blogged about what I’ve been reading for … well, a long time … so I have a long list that I will review briefly. (Note to self: briefly.)

Paul Miller

A Praying Life, A Loving Life, and right now Love Walked Among Us have been my nonfiction selections of the last several months. I read nonfiction slower than fiction—usually only half a chapter or a chapter a day. I love Miller’s literary writing style and his convicting honesty.

A Praying Life reshaped how I pray. A Loving Life is my favorite of his books—it’s not a marriage book per se, though there’s lots of application in that area, since it’s about love in all our relationships. His theme of the J curve and how love leads to death and then resurrection spoke powerfully to me. So often I expect love to be easy and happy, and then when it’s not, I wonder if I made a wrong turn somewhere. Real love is hard but worth it.

Love Walked Among Us is specifically about how Jesus loved. It is oh-so-practical on topics like how to respond to manipulation or how to confront. I’m halfway through this one and loving it so far.

The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel

I read this in late summer, and in hindsight it’s my favorite fiction of the year. I can’t even put my finger on why I liked it so much. It’s so memorable. It draws you in. It’s kind of an upgrade on Love Comes Softly. It’s nuanced and honest.

The Lake House by Kate Morton

This novel was my treat to myself while staying at a lake house this summer. It’s an engrossing vacation read. Kate Morton has definite Gothic overtones, and one of her books I put down partway through because it was a little too disturbing for me. This one is a wonderful read, though. She’s so skillful in how she weaves together a plot from two different time periods and multiple viewpoints. I just read it admiring her art and loving her characters.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This is a novel about family dysfunction and specifically how children are pressured by their parent’s experiences and expectations. These characters largely respond to their issues by burying them—until something happens so tragic that they have to deal with their stuff. I found the mother difficult to relate to. But all in all, this is a well-told story and it challenged me to think about how my life experiences impact my parenting. It’s definitely a warning not to put on our children pressures formed by our own disappointments and insecurities.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

At the expense of sounding a like a teenager, I’ll say this book was a little weird but still cool. The ending particularly is like, what?! But the development of characters and setting is so spot on, and I definitely felt myself drawn into the family drama and sympathetic to everyone involved.

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah’s novels always seem to have at least two major female characters (this one has three—a mother and two daughters), and though there’s romance on the periphery of her stories, the focus of the plot is always on the relationships between the women. She’s not my favorite author—she sometimes seems a bit unrealistic and contrived. But that said, this was another fascinating story, even if it did toe the line of what constitutes “relaxing” and maybe I was researching the siege of Leningrad on my phone at 10 PM.

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Well-researched, fascinating historical novel about Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter. After reading a novel about Sally Hemings earlier this year, I was interested to read about this period in history from a different perspective. I appreciate how this novel deals with the nuance of Jefferson’s family—it’s not overly condemning or praising, and it helps to understand the challenges of that time period. I read this shortly before the election and decided that Jefferson being elected President was probably a more traumatic election cycle than what we just endured. Historical perspective helps.

The Mitford Series by Jan Karon

If any books fit the chamomile tea analogy, it would be these. So relaxing. I really enjoyed the first of the series—loved the characters and the small town humor. But to be honest, books 2 and 3 are in my bedroom waiting to be read. I only made if halfway through book 2. Maybe this series is a bit too relaxing?

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty always seems to have some moral ambiguity in her stories, and at least one PG-13 plot line. That said, I can’t think of any other contemporary author whose characterization is so spot-on. She can write empathetically from almost any viewpoint. It’s fascinating to see one character from another character’s eyes, and then promptly switch places. I think this kind of reading can bring a greater empathy and self-awareness to life as you’re more cognizant of what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

This novel focuses on three couples who experience a crisis together. Each of the six characters—four in particular—struggle in specific ways that affect their marriages. I appreciate how Moriarty deals honestly with the stuff of life and emphasizes the priority of working through that stuff and staying married. Besides, she’s just fun to read.

That’s all I can remember from the last several months—next up is Hillbilly Elegy which I am excited about, and I’m hoping to get my hands on Ann Voskamp’s latest book for my next nonfiction read.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Foster Care: Saying Goodbye

A few years ago, I drove a little baby I loved to the home of someone I didn’t really know or trust, and left him there.

I think I’ll forever remember the “Mom, what gives?” look of confusion he gave me as I turned away.  I drove home thinking, “This is not me. I do not do this. I do not leave my baby behind!!!”

But at that moment it was me, it was a me who had no other choice.  The baby I loved was not in my legal custody, I did not have the option of keeping him, and it was my job as his foster mom who had raised him from newborn to first birthday, to leave him with birth family for a week at that time, and later permanently.

That goodbye was soul-searing for me to the point that I sometimes think of my life as two periods before and after that loss, because grief changes you.  I hope that grief has helped me become a stronger person with a deeper faith and love.  Sometimes, to be honest, I fear that it’s also made me a little more hardened and cynical than the naively optimistic person I was before.

This week I’m preparing to say goodbye to a foster child again.  This time around it’s different because it’s only been a few months and I’m not as deeply bonded (am I? it’s hard to even tell sometimes).  And it’s also more complicated because ending this placement was partly our choice.

In other words, I am sending a child away from my home, which on top of all the normal guilt we moms feel, makes me feel like a really horrible-in-the-worst-way, that’s-it-I’m-abandoning-you, type of mom.

When I first got the call this summer, standing beside the swimming pool, talking first with the caseworker, then with my husband, then with the caseworker again, we decided to accept this placement tentatively, on a trial basis.  We’ve only fostered babies before, and this time we had said we would accept a child up to age four, and this call was about a girl a few years older than that.  But still we said yes, we would give it a try.

And I don’t regret that yes, because I know that the last few months have grown us in good ways, and I hope they have been healing and helpful to this little girl as well.  We had a “honeymoon” period of a few weeks when we were all getting settled in together (though if you had told me then it was a honeymoon period, I would have laughed, because it was really, really hard, as in thinking to myself several times a day “I can’t do this” hard).

Then unsafe behaviors began, and my whole view of normal shifted.  Other parenting concerns I had in the past—toddler tantrums, defiance, asking why, sibling arguments, bedtime troubles, all the daily drama, etc., etc., suddenly paled in comparison to—how do you respond when you are suddenly attacked by a child who is big enough to do you harm?  How do you manage unsafe behaviors when there are small children in the home?

What makes these questions so hard to consider is that most of the time, we have really sweet moments with our foster daughter. We snuggle together and watch movies. We go to the pool and the playground and the apple orchard. We laugh together over jokes and developed a super power of eating multiple leaves of spinach at once. We talk about Jesus and pray. We sing and listen to music and dance. She spells my name “mis lesu” and writes me notes and I write her back. We have bonded deeply.

But there is no quick fix for years of neglect and abuse in a child whose deep fears and hurts can suddenly spiral into violent rage. It’s been way out of my comfort zone to be the target of someone whom I’m only trying to help. I want to give nurture and love, and sometimes it is received, but other times it is pushed away and hated because I’m not her birth family who she longs to be with.

One of the challenging concepts of foster care, but something that helped me so much to understand, is this—trauma affects maturity.  In other words, a 20-something woman with a traumatic history may behave like a 12-year-old.  This was a lightbulb moment for me when I was trying to help a 20-something homeless woman, and I just wanted her to be a normal person and accept my help and get a job and get an apartment, if she was so serious about getting her baby back.  But behaviorally, she was 12, and you don’t expect a 12-year-old to get a job and an apartment.  No matter how well-intentioned they may be, and no matter how much they may love snuggling their baby, living like an independent, responsible adult is something that would take a long time for them to grow into.

In the foster care system, we have a lot of birth parents who act as if they are 12 or 13 because of their own traumatic backgrounds.  And their elementary school-age children may act as if they are 1 or 2 because of the abuse and neglect they have experienced.

This is really problematic. I can totally handle it when my 1-year-old is having a tantrum.  I can carry him to a safe place, or buckle him into a car seat or shopping cart. There is a limit to the damage he can do.  But imagine that behavior in a child who is much older, who is capable of unbuckling her seat belt and attacking you while driving, or who can open the door and run pretty fast down the street.

We need so much compassion here, because it’s easy to slip into judgment—oh my gosh, this is horrible behavior—when we need to have eyes to see beyond the anger to the years of hurt that have caused it. That 1-year-old tantrum needs that 1-year-old response of, “I love you, you are safe, here’s your blanket and your sippy cup.”

But a few weeks ago, we decided we needed to say good-bye, primarily because we have three birth children in our home who are affected by this.  I realized that the needs of our foster daughter are so great that whenever she is home, my emotional focus is on her, and I am simply going through the motions with my children, hoping they will behave well so that they won’t aggravate an already-difficult situation.

And one day when I was driving home, I looked in the rear view mirror and realized that my oldest had his hands over his head and was staring at his lap, retreating into sullen anger, and my four-year-old was using words that she didn’t know a couple months ago, and my husband and I talked about it, and it was clear—this is not a good fit. If we foster right now, it needs to be children who are younger than our birth three.

We second-guessed that decision, but this time it was our caseworker who confirmed that this little girl would do better in a home without small children.

It is clear in my mind, but not in my heart, which is still shouting at me, “No, I love her! I can help her! What is going to happen to her if we send her away?” To say I have conflicted emotions would be an understatement. I’m kind of a mess right now.

The last few months have opened my eyes to the incredible need for more foster parents.  In my season of life, struggling with Lyme and raising three young birth children, I cannot foster a child with such deep needs.  She needs to go somewhere else. Where?  Our department has found another home for her, but there are so many others like her.

Sometimes we think we need to go on a missions trip to Africa, or adopt from China, to meet deep needs in the world.  I think international missions trips and adoption are wonderful and I am deeply in favor of both.  But sometimes we become so focused on the faraway or exotic, that we forget there are deep needs in our own communities.

Within a few miles of your home there is probably be a child being neglected and abused, needing a safe place to live.  In your affluent American county, there may be a child living without electricity and running water, but more importantly, living without love and security.

Who will help them?  Stepping into the foster care system is full of pain and uncertainty, and pretty much the only guarantee is that your heart will get smashed up, but hopefully it will get bigger and better in the process.  And the pain of loss can be equaled by the joy of knowing that you have saved a life, that you have made a difference, that you have done something that really matters eternally, that you have experienced the presence of Jesus on the front lines.

Anyway, all of this is to say—please pray for us this week, because good-byes are hard, and this one is really complicated.

Friday, October 14, 2016

For or Against? Loving Our Neighbor This Election Season

Of all the classes I took in college, the one that may have made the most difference in my life was Logic at (what seemed in that season of life) the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. I struggled in clutching my coffee cup, sometimes narrowly avoiding being late, and listened to my professor explain concepts that would reshape my mental grid.

One easy-to-understand but revolutionary concept was this—avoid straw-man arguments, where you present your opponent’s view in a weak and insupportable way, like a scarecrow, and then proceed to knock it down to the wild applause of the crowd. This isn’t real fighting—it’s the coward’s way of emerging as a winner when you haven’t engaged the real issues. You look like a victor to everyone who already agrees with you, while those who disagree feel misunderstood and misrepresented. Using the straw-man argument shows that you’re not really about understanding the truth; you’re more interested in winning.

Another concept that rocked my world was the idea of a charitable interpretation—the opposite of the straw-man argument, explaining your opponent’s position in such a strong and persuasive way, in such a good light, that if your opponent were standing right beside you they would be like, “Wow, thank you for explaining my position so well. I know I was understood.”

A charitable interpretation doesn’t mean that you agree with your opponent or concede to them; it just means that you take the time to understand them and put their argument in the best light possible before you take it down. It’s the courageous way to play.

Ever since I finished that Logic class, I’ve been trying to do this in my own life. Listen to the opposing side. Sit with them awhile. Consider their view. Re-evaluate my own position. Engage thoughtfully. Quit knocking down scare-crows.

Recently I’ve been convicted that I’ve been violating some of my own principles. 

Way back last summer in 2015, when people were beginning to look toward the Republican primaries and Donald Trump was starting to be a major conversation piece, I immediately concluded that I would never vote for him. No matter what. I was completely appalled by his character. He offended everything that was important to me. My position since then has never changed.

But this last year’s political process has been eye-opening to me, as I’ve watched how differently my friends have reacted to it. You take a sampling of people who have the following qualities—they are intelligent, they are thoughtful, they do their research, they are pro-life, they are committed Christians—and some are arguing for Hillary Clinton, some for Donald Trump, and some for no one at all, or a third-party candidate, about which there is plenty of disagreement as well.

Maybe this shouldn’t have been so surprising to me, but it was—how, when we start with so much in common, do we end up on opposite sides of the fence?

And this is what challenged me—the #NeverTrump movement can be a comfortable place to be, because it feels like the moral high ground. It’s easy to be idealistic and self-righteous here. Yes, I’m talking to myself. It’s easy to construct straw-man arguments—“anyone who votes for Trump doesn’t care about women who have been assaulted or wants to minimize what they have suffered,” for example. Or—“any Christian who votes for Trump is putting their Republican politics above their faith.” (Ouch. Yes. I’m sorry.)

What happened to charitable interpretation? Our political process, and our conversations online about it, have turned into such a combat sport, that it can be all about knocking down scarecrows and emerging as a winner. It may not be nearly as exciting, but it’s certainly a lot better, to actually listen to the opposing side and consider.

When we put politics above loving our neighbor, we fall into the trap of thinking that Washington, D.C., is the only place that matters, that our federal government is where change happens, and that the most important thing I can do in my life is vote for an American Presidential candidate. That’s simply not true. These things are important, but they are just a small piece of what we are called to. No matter who wins this election and what the consequences are, what will be left of our relationships and communities when this election is over?

So this is what I’m realizing: My friends who are voting for Hillary Clinton—you have reasonable arguments that I’ve listened to, and especially if you’re an evangelical pro-life Christian, you’re doing a brave thing to swim against the flow here. I don’t agree with you, and voting for Clinton would violate my conscience, but I get where you’re coming from and I respect you.

My friends who are voting for Donald Trump—I know you are not like him. I am sorry if in my stand against him I have made you feel judged. I know you’re making a carefully considered decision to vote for someone you may have serious reservations about. You maybe think he’s evil, or at best misguided, or maybe a brand-new Christian with a rough past. But after looking at all the options, you think a vote for him is a strategic good and you feel like it’s a moral responsibility for you, and the best thing you can do for America and for the world. I don’t agree with you, and I still would like to find a #NeverTrump sign to put in my yard, but I really do understand the hard choice you’ve had to make and I respect you.

My friends who are voting third-party or not at all—I’m with you. This is where my sympathies lie, and no matter how irate we sometimes feel, let’s not get morally superior or just plain annoying about it. And no matter how much we may be accused of being irresponsible or wasting our vote, let’s not compromise our principles. If after thinking and praying about it, we’ve decided that this is where Jesus is calling us, we should never regret trying our best to follow Him.

Really, this election season is just one more test for how we love God and love our neighbor, and how we walk in humility and faith. We believe He rules sovereignly and He has a long history of fulfilling His purposes and writing His story despite (and sometimes through) evil authorities. Far more important than who we vote for is how we vote (in fear? cynicism? doubt? divisiveness? self-righteousness?) and how we treat each other in the process.

For me, this means that for the rest of this election season, unless you ask my opinion, I’m not going to give it to you (and that includes Facebook). I’m not going to worry about all the horrible political things I see online. Much as I think a #NeverTrump sign in my yard would be fun, I’m too busy chasing my kids around that yard to get one. I’m going to quietly vote my conscience on Election Day, love all my friends who vote the same or differently, and live like there’s a lot more to life than politics. Because there is.