Love & Self-Protection & Goodbye

Today a boy turned down a hug (and a kiss, “Ughhhh!”) from this wanna-be momma whose nest has been empty forever. He wants to be cool in front of his friends. Keep his facade. Feel no emotion. Tries hard to avoid the inevitable final goodbye.

Yesterday, Honey hugged our boys goodbye in the van as we left for Atlanta. He couldn’t come. He had to work. I captured the moment with my phone.

A small herd of Ukranian orphans marches toward the security gate after two hours of agonizing waiting with host families whose hearts are heavy with the unexpected feeling that one of our own is walking away and there is nothing we can do about it. The boy brushes past me, heading for the front of the pack. “Goodbye,” he whispers casually in passing, as if we’d just met. As if our hearts are in no way entangled.

Walking away

“I’m not letting you off that easy.” I toss the words to the back of his head as he blends into a group of teenage boys wearing pristine Christmas-Nikes and warm winter coats; coats that will wrap down-filled arms around them on freezing Ukraine mornings when no moms or dads are there to hug them off to school. He does not respond.

I wait at the back of the group, my other boy at my elbow where he’s hovered for most of the day. He’s quiet. More so than usual. This morning at our hotel he sneaked up behind me, wrapping his arms tightly around my waist as I scraped stuff off the nightstand into my overnight bag. He wanted my phone, to message his girlfriend on VK. Perhaps he also wanted to hug me when no one else was looking.

We had our moment, my boys and I. I know it was God’s gift to me this morning as I sat propped against pillows in a king-size bed with my Bible and journal open. The boy who now wants nothing to do with me came in first. Flopping face down in front of my crisscrossed legs, he unashamedly demanded, “Scratch my back.” I could not refuse. Soon the other one entered the room wearing a “What are you doing?” expression. He flopped down, also. Not too close. No bare skin. Face turned away. I reached for his arm. Tugged him closer. Scratched his bony back through a thin, grey shirt.

“Keep them in Your palm, Lord God,” I prayed as morning sunlight filtered through the drapes, warming the backs of their heads. I placed my hands there, in the sun’s warmth, ruffling the coarse waves of the dark-haired one and smoothing the fine, straight strands of the other. “You promise, right here in your Word. Isaiah 43 verses 1 and 2, that they are YOURS. That You have redeemed them. That You call them by name. That you will be with them through the ‘waters’ and through the ‘fire.’ God, I do not know exactly what ‘water’ and ‘fire’ is ahead for these guys. I am afraid of the unknown. I know nothing of the life they live when they are not living life with Honey and me. They grew up too much between our summer hosting and December. Experienced too much. Hurt too much. I don’t want them to go back to that unknown. I want them to stay right here. It’s hard to let them go.”

I know about letting go. I’ve done it before. I’ve loved and lost a child I thought was mine. Watched her grow up from afar. Wished I could hold her and love her and be in her world. I know this path of choosing to release them to Jesus. I believe He honors His promises to praying mothers, and surrogate mothers, godmothers, foster mothers, adoptive mothers and grandmothers. When we pray God’s Word back to Him, claiming those promises for our kiddos, those words are not empty or useless. Our prayers for our loved ones are never unheard or unattended to. The Amplified Bible says it this way: “So will My word be which goes out of My mouth; It will not return to Me void (useless, without result), Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

I held that promise in my heart as I held my boys for the last time in I-don’t-know-how-long.

Thank you, God, for this moment,” I prayed as love flowed from my fingertips. “Help them to be able to receive and believe Your love for them. Help Honey and me to be able to show what that looks like when they come home for good. I’m holding You to Your promise in Isaiah 43:5 and 6. That You WILL bring them home for good.”

“Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your descendants from the east,
And gather you from the west;
 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
And to the south, ‘Do not keep them back!’
Bring My sons from afar,
And My daughters from the ends of the earth—“ (NKJV)

“Let’s pray,” I said, bringing an end to our moment as time became our enemy. They offered their hands. To me. To one another. We formed our usual circle of prayer. They prayed in Ukrainian. I prayed in English. God understood every word.

~~~~~~~~~

 At the airport, the chaperone is speaking. “You have two minutes to say your final goodbyes before we go,” she announces in both languages. Families embrace their hosted kiddos; some for the final time, some “until next time.” Tears are shed. Promises made.

I rush to the front of the group to touch the arm of the boy who walked away without a hug. I turn him toward me as love wells up, spilling onto my cheeks. That same sweet boy who demanded affection only hours earlier becomes rigid with resistance as I reach for him. It is awkward. Embarrassing. Painful.

Returning to the back of the line, I find the other one with his game face on. “Goodbye,” he says, eyes pleading for me not to make a scene. We halfway hug. “I love you,” I state, (even though he already knows). He nods, then melts into a sea of boys with backpacks.Airport SecurityI stand with the other families who wave and smile through their tears. Two young girls jump up and down from the other side of the barrier. They are waving, smiling ­­- encouraging their “mom” not to cry. I do not wave. My boys do not turn around. I stay here until the backs of their familiar heads disappear through the checkpoint. Another host mom stands next to me. She places her arms around me and gives me the hug I long for. Our tears flow. We are not ashamed. We understand the Father’s lavish love. Through Him we will show our orphaned kids how to give and receive unconditional love. There’s no shame in that.

 “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 NIV)

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Making Soup, Making Family

Today I turned down a hug from a boy whose “hug tank” has run on empty for years.snorkel masked kid I wanted him to do some menial household task. He tried to manipulate his way out of work by offering his scrawny, outstretched arms in exchange for disregarding chores. I rejected the offer. Turned my back. Repeated my command. He rejected the work. Ignored the demand. Sat on the sofa like a lump of lead. Lose/lose.

Five days from now he will board a plane to Ukraine with an unknown return date. I will offer him my outstretched arms in exchange for the ache I will carry all the way home to Florida from the Atlanta International Airport if he refuses affection from me like he did from My Honey when they said goodbye last August.

I wasn’t there. It would have crushed me to see my sweet “Boys of Summer” morph into two dudes too cool for tenderness as they crossed that invisible line that keeps tears in check and converts sons back into orphans, family into strangers.

Last night as the other boy taught me how to make Ukrainian style borscht, I pondered the ingredients that make a family.vegetables Does it make us family when I begin munching a freshly peeled carrot and a kid grabs it from my hand to take a bite then returns it without batting an eye? Or when I leave the borscht lesson to pull a load of still-warm laundry from the dryer and find four people’s socks and underwear clinging unashamedly to one another? Maybe we became family when Honey fumbled into the boys’ shared bedroom for the umpteenth time to stop a wrestling match after midnight, or when he and I looked one another in the eye and said, “Are you sure you really want to do this?”

I don’t know when it happened or how it happened, but it happened. Like the sewing of a garment or the making of a stew, one thread, one stitch, one ingredient at a time, we are making a family.making borscht

It’s a recipe I haven’t used before, although some ingredients are familiar. Love, that’s the main one. It binds everything else together. No, we can’t have too much of that. When love is present, we’re no longer strangers. Love softens fear, smooths pride, soothes the burn of anger.

The next ingredient is trust. This one is hard to find, elusive, delicate. When added to the mix, trust strengthens each relationship. Without it, we have nothing but facades. I have experience with this ingredient. Or rather, I have experience with trying to make “family soup” without trust. Soup without trust is extremely unsatisfying. One will always remain hungry, not matter how much one eats. Been there. Done that. Nearly starved to death. Can’t leave out the trust.

Next comes faith: Faith in the Father who loves the fatherless. Faith in the One who put us in the stewpot together. Faith in the Son who died for the sins of our past so we can have an eternal future. Faith in Spirit who comforts us when we hurt, guides us when we falter, heals us when we break. Faith in angels who protect us when we cannot protect one another. Families without faith flounder. Gotta have faith.

Maybe what really makes us family is when we kneel together nightly, holding hands in a circle of prayer, prayer that brings down language barriers and unites our hearts in thanks to the God who brought us together. Perhaps prayer is the seasoning that gives flavor to a family, the spice that keeps our connection alive when we are out of sight and out of sync. Even if our boys open their eyes and make faces at each other. Even if they balk and tease and pretend to object. Even then. Because when I hear my name in their prayers, even if it’s the only word I understand, I am fed.

When I call their names in prayer – though they are on a plane or in an orphanage on a different continent, I know our Father will hold them close. He will hug them for me, even if they don’t do their chores. His love is unconditional. Unreserved. Unafraid. I can tap into that love for my boys, anytime. Anywhere. So can you. For your loved ones. No matter how far they’ve gone, how much they’ve messed up. No matter how many drugs they’ve done, babies they’ve aborted, lies they’ve told, or stuff they’ve pawned.

It’s hard to release our loved ones to Him. Tough to trust that He loves them more than we ever could. Painful to think that the threads that weave us into family can quickly come unraveled and make a tangled knot that only Jesus can repair; but He is the only one who can. So if you are in despair tonight, or going to bed with fear as a bedfellow, or are fighting shame because your kid’s addiction kept them from coming home for the holidays, make soup. Start with love. Add some trust that God is fully capable of working a miracle in the life of your loved one. Exercise your faith in His power to redeem the dreams for your family that you thought were lost. Pray. Without ceasing. And wait. God has promises for those of us who wait: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31 KJV).

Happy New Year from my heart to yours! Enjoy your soup in 2016. I know I’m looking forward to mine.borscht

He Knows Them By Heart

I fell off the wagon today. I worked for nine hours at school. It’s Sunday.classroom

Yes, work is often my drug of choice. Some numb with food. Some with drugs, or media. I numb with work. As a teacher, it’s easy to do. The job is never quite finished. I could have stayed longer this evening, but I noticed darkness creeping onto the campus, sending shadows down the long, silent hallway as I hung my sixteen second graders’ writing samples in preparation for Open House on Tuesday.

I didn’t want to come home. It’s too quiet here. I can hear the clock ticking in the other room. I can see the boys’ shoes lined up underneath the sideboard near the front door. Even though they are naughty for leaving them there, I smile. They must have unloaded those when I wasn’t looking and replaced that space in their suitcases with Nerf guns or remote control cars.

Squatting to reach under the antique cabinet, I gather four pairs of well-worn, outdated shoes. Shoes my Summer Boys brought with them from their Ukrainian orphanages to America. Shoes that were too small the day they arrived. Shoes they were supposed to take back so other kids could still get some use from them. We had packed those shoes. I didn’t want them to get in trouble for not returning the things they arrived with. It’s too late now.

Taking the shoes into the tiny bedroom that used to be my office, I line them up against the closet door. I’ve barely been in here since they left last weekend. The room is a disaster. And it smells like teenage boys. But, that’s not what keeps me away.clothing on floorWhat keeps me away is the raw emotion I experience when I think of the two boys who shared this space for two months. What keeps me away is the longing to come in here and say, “Goodnight,” when I know their bunks are empty. What keeps me away is the ache I experience when I sit here, in my office chair, (the one they swiveled around and around, loftily demanding payment from Honey or me if we dared cross unbidden into “their” territory), trying to imagine what they are doing tonight. Only it’s not tonight. It’s tomorrow in Ukraine. It’s Monday – a school day.

God, I just want to talk to them. I want to hear their voices, even if I won’t understand their language. I want to look into their eyes and see if they are really okay, regardless of what their mouths say. I know them by heart. If I can just see them, I will know if they are afraid or alone or upset or content with their circumstances.

But, I can’t speak with them. I can’t see them. I can’t really know anything except that they landed safely and that they are back in their orphanages and back in their schools and back in their normal routines. And that they are (according to the chaperone), “okay.”

Are they really okay, Lord? Or are they “okay” like I was “fine” last week? “Okay…” with a nameless gnawing ache that does not go away, no matter what I’m doing. “Okay…” with the drumbeat of everyone’s busy life moving quickly all around me as I feel like blackstrap molasses in winter, s-l-o-w and dark and heavy with the bitter aftertaste that comes once the sweetness is gone. “Okay…” as I numb the ache with work and avoidance and grumpiness with my Honey who doesn’t understand where all this unusual emotion is erupting from. Are they okay, like me?

I don’t want to relapse into workaholism. But it helped to just be in a sterile space today: organizing and arranging and sorting and grading and planning and hanging student work on the walls. It helped to be away from home where the bananas are turning spotty and brown before my very eyes. This would never happen if the boys were here. Away from home where I know I need to wash their sheets and clean their room. unmade bedBut if I wash everything I might forget the scent of their space in our home. That almost-good smell of Axe body spray and antiperspirant barely masking the unmistakable musty sock stench emanating from underneath the bed. If I clean and tidy every evidence of them away, will they disappear from my memory, too?

I have a friend whose children are in foster care. I also have a friend who fosters children… who come and go and come again into her home. And I have a friend who mourns her choice to abort her unborn baby all those years ago. They each understand this ache, this longing to hold the child who holds your heart; this wondering that cannot be answered, either because of their own choices, or those of a system that controls the destinies of children who cannot control their own lives.

Rarely does a child not mourn the loss of their mother when extraordinary circumstances separate families. Frightened young kids don’t beg to be shuffled from temporary home to temporary home until the powers that be can finally decide what permanent living arrangements are in the child’s best interest. And nobody asks to be removed from their mother’s womb prematurely. Yet these tragedies happen multiple times every minute of every single day on planet Earth.

Refugees, homeless, orphans, aborted babies by the billions – What an ache God must have in His heart as He looks at the planet He created. How He must long to bring His children home. Our Father knows each little one by heart. He knows our scent, our secrets, the very number of hairs on our heads. He says He knew our names before we were born (Jeremiah 1:5). He knows our pasts and our futures. He knows the plans He has for us (Jeremiah 29:11).

He knows these kiddos, too. The ones we long to hold in our arms. The ones we beg to come home. The ones strung out on drugs. The prodigal ones who seem to be running farther and farther from us and from Him. And He knows the names of the ones we wish we could turn back time and resurrect. He knows them all. He loves them all. And He never ever forgets any of them.

When we connect with Him, we connect with them. When we commit them to Him, we can trust that they are in better hands than our own. When we pray over them, we can KNOW that we are heard and that heavenly beings are immediately dispatched to minister to their tender hearts.

Lord God, I’m sorry I worked too much today. I’m sorry I avoided the pain of my reality. I’m sorry I tried to numb the ache with busyness, just like I used to do when my whole life was chaos. Forgive me for turning to my drug of choice instead of turning to You. Help me to deal with my newly empty nest in healthy ways. Help me to trust Your plans for our future. Love on those boys for me today, okay? In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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If you want to pray a powerful prayer over your loved one(s), just plug his/her name into this Psalm wherever it says “me” or “I.”

1You have searched me, Lord,

and you know me.

2You know when I sit and when I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar.

3You discern my going out and my lying down;

you are familiar with all my ways.

4Before a word is on my tongue

you, Lord, know it completely.

5You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain.

7Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

8If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,”

12even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

13For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

15My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

17How precious to me are your thoughts,a God!

How vast is the sum of them!

18Were I to count them,

they would outnumber the grains of sand—

when I awake, I am still with you.

Psalm 139:1-18 (NIV)