And Then There Were Presents; But What if There Hadn’t Been?

 If you have read our book, Swaying in the Treetops, then you already know that Christmas for our family is a season of faith and trusting God for provision. This year was another interesting year.

After God’s incredible, even miraculous, provision that allowed us to travel and complete Scott’s cancer treatments in the spring, He suddenly seemed to go very quiet.

On June 26, 2016, after weeks of financial struggles, I started a journal. I wanted to keep track of my thoughts and my prayers — and of God’s answers. Answers that, from experience, I knew would come eventually.

On July 19, 2016, my journaled cry for help said simply, “God, where are you???” 

The following months were full of entries that included my cries for help and God’s answers to my prayers when He sent those. But many times, we waited days or weeks for desperate answers. I won’t go into all of those details, here, but we will probably share much about these months in our next book.

On Thanksgiving night, the children drew names as part of our annual Secret Sibling Gift Swap. They love this part of Christmas better than any other part. They spend the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas thinking about what their secret sibling would love to have, and then we sneak in moments here and there to shop online for just the perfect gifts. It’s such a fun part of the season for all of us as the house comes alive with the buzz of secrets and excitement and anticipation.

But there was no money to begin shopping for these gifts, and as we moved into December, we continued praying about Christmas for the children.

And God remained quiet.

Dear friends who run a local tree farm made sure we got a Christmas tree, just as they have done every year for the past decade. Oh, how we thanked God for that tree! And it was such a beautiful tree, and our home was filled with joy as we decorated it together, asking God to help us just be in that moment and leave tomorrow in His hands.

Christmas Tree Day #9
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But day after day passed, and the floor around this beautiful tree remained empty. I began to wonder if this might be the year God would ask us to experience a Christmas without gifts.
Christmas Tree Day #18

This wasn’t the first year we have wondered that, as we shared in our book. And each year that we are faced with this question, my heart longs to embrace it willingly if this is God’s plan.

But each year, my humanness trembles with fear at the thought, and I have to admit to myself that I want to be able to give my children presents. And this desire always leads me to the question, “Do you want to give your children presents more than you want to follow God’s plans?”

In the end, God provided gifts for all of us to give to each other. It started as a bit of a trickle as friends who knew nothing about our current situation sent money that made it possible for us to buy coats for the few kids who needed them this year. Then more friends from Alabama texted to say they had a financial gift for our family. Other friends from another state sent a financial gift, and little by little, we were able to begin shopping for the kids.

Financial gifts, some sent anonymously, continued to come from completely unexpected places until we were able to finish all of our shopping for everyone and cover some bills we hadn’t been able to pay. Gifts weren’t extravagant, and a number of them were bought used from eBay, but they were perfectly suited to each child’s special needs, level of development, and areas of interest.

And God didn’t stop. The trickle increased to the point of a full-blown shower of blessings.

  • Neighbors who, again didn’t know about our need when they approached us, pulled together resources from friends at work and from their family members and provided gloves and hats; craft items; needed items for our kitchen, like a toaster and a blender; a new huge grill for our deck; homemade blankets for the kids’ beds . . .
  • Someone secretly left bags of gifts on our front porch, and each child got one special gift that was incredibly matched to that child’s challenges and/or hobbies.
  • Other friends secretly ordered beautiful fleece throws embroidered with each person’s name. We all love using these on chilly family movie nights!
  • A steady stream of gift cards from Target, Walmart, Kroger, and Sears, as well as Visa gift cards, took care of covering the cost of special Christmas baking, wrapping supplies, and some other needs.
  • Other friends wrote to us and offered to handle the overwhelming cost and task of ordering color-coded towels for every person in our family and having them shipped directly to us.
Christmas Tree Day #4

New hats and gloves

Choosing blankets1

Roslyn choosing a new homemade blanket for her bed

Choosing Blankets2

Owen choosing a new homemade blanket for his bed

Grill Being Assembled

New grill being assembled in our family room

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Casacading gifts from an anonymous “Santa”

Ertl's Amazing Surprise

Embroidered fleece throws

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Let the baking begin

Baking Christmas Pies 12-16

Sibling Gift Wrapping

Lilyan wrapping her Secret Sibling Gift

Towels from Brian and Sharon Horton

New towels for every family member

Where did all of these people come from? We firmly believe that God moved each person’s heart to be a part of our Christmas story this year. And we were deeply, deeply touched by the generosity of their hearts and their willingness to follow God’s prompting.

There is just no way that we will ever be able to say thank you for the amazing love that was showered on us during this past holiday season. But this blog post is my attempt to try to express how much each of you mean to us. How your generosity and love, your prayers and your gifts blessed us beyond anything we could’ve imagined at the beginning of this holiday season.

It’s our way of trying to remind you that God used you in such tangible ways to meet the needs of our family during a very difficult time. To hopefully enable you to see that you are a part of the incredible story God is writing through our unusual family.

It is our desire that you not underestimate what an important piece of our lives you each have been during a year when we sometimes needed reminders of God’s faithfulness and willingness to always hear our prayers. Thank you with all our hearts. And we pray that God will bless you abundantly in return.

But this post is also more than that.

It’s also an attempt to share/confess the fragility of our faith compared with God’s great faithfulness; to examine His huge benevolence as we grapple with learning what things are genuine needs and which are merely desires; and to focus on His loving sovereignty that chooses the very best path for each of us in every season of our lives.

So I ask myself — what if God had chosen not to send these material blessings? What if the floor around that tree had remained empty? 

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Catching up with Santa since last year’s chat

Chatting with Santa3
Chatting with Santa3
Chatting with Santa2

Scott and I did a lot of talking and praying about what kind of an example we wanted to set for our children during those days and weeks of uncertainty. This quote expressed the desires our hearts:

“Men are apt to think of God by his worshippers, and by the people that profess themselves near and dear to Him; therefore it concerns us to walk so that our lives may honour Him. There is no way to honour God entirely and sincerely until we have learned both to know and to do His will. So you see what need we have to go to God, that He will give us grace that we may please Him and glorify His name.”
~ Thomas Manton (1620–1677)

There is no place where it’s more important than in our own homes — in front or our own children — to “walk so that our lives may honor Him.” So we prayed often that God would enable us to accept His will about what our family Christmas should look like and that we might “please Him and glorify His name.”

And more than once, we failed to do this in the ways we longed to do it.

On the days when we felt scared or sad, and not at all strong in our faith, we made sure to talk openly about this with our children. We knew they would sense it anyway, and we always believe that anything that hints of hypocrisy is one of the most damaging things we can bring into our children’s lives. They need honesty from us.

They were all surprisingly comforted by hearing that we experienced times of doubting and fear and sadness because they had been struggling with their own guilt over these same emotions.

There were beautiful moments in our family room, around that empty Christmas tree, when we all encouraged each other, prayed together, quoted Scripture, and reminded each other of God’s promises. And I believe we all grew a bit in our ability to trust through this past season, just as we all grew even closer to each other through these moments.

I also believe that, had God decided this was a year when He was not going to send gifts, His light and joy and presence would’ve filled our home and made it a beautiful Christmas, and that He would’ve given us grace and enabled us to praise Him and celebrate this wonderful season.

I know this because I know that we can trust Him to always decide what is best for us — what will best refine us and make us more like Him as He has promised to do.

I know this in my head, at least. There are times when my heart lags behind a bit. 

After the holidays were past, some of our children began experiencing unexpected medical problems again. Kathryn was one of these as her body suddenly developed significant issues with urinary retention. This is so painful for her. As she was going through her most recent bout with this and whimpering in pain, I was struck by her ability to trust us even when she is hurting. She sat with me on the couch and looked into my face just waiting for me to make things better for her. Innocently trusting that I could and would take away her pain and care for her.

And, once again, I longed for this kind of child-like trust in my Father. He knows what’s best. I want to face every day, even Christmas when it comes around again, trusting Him to do what’s best for us.

I pray, “Deepen my relationship with you God. Deepen it to a place where circumstances don’t affect my ability and willingness to follow wherever you lead; to accept, even embrace, whatever you deem to be good and right and beautiful.”

But I pray this while squeezing my eyes closed and maybe even flinching a bit. Because I do want to grow. I DO want to grow.

But, oh how painful growth can sometimes be.

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Our tree, standing nobly over gifts for each family member

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A Wasted Day Not Wasted

What if sometimes the most responsible thing to do is to be totally irresponsible? 

What’s your go-to escape? Whether you act on it or not, what is that your heart longs for when you are exhausted, burned-out, and when life is knocking you down over and over again?

A bubble bath? A night alone in a quiet hotel room? A day to stay in bed and read? Maybe you dream big, and it’s a trip to Hawaii?

When I reach this point in life, mine is almost always the same — hot tomato soup while vegging on the couch in front of old movies. All day.

Why tomato soup? I don’t really know. But this is a very important piece to me. It has to be tomato soup.

And . . . Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman . . . Oh, I love those old movies.

The longing for this is even greater if it’s also a rainy day.

Scott and I have functioned in a place of emotional, physical, and sometimes spiritual fatigue for most of the past year. His cancer diagnosis and treatments, followed by many months of significant side effects were difficult. But these things on top of never-ending medical problems for the kids in the midst of a life that already requires superhuman strength to pull off on a daily basis, kept us continually gasping for breath and longing for rest that sleep alone couldn’t seem to give us.

On Monday, Jaden had another spine surgery to repair a broken rod in his back and to also lengthen those titanium rods to keep up with his growth. Before we could leave the house that morning, though, Kathryn had to have an emergency catheterization because her bladder had suddenly stopped functioning, making it impossible for her to void on her own. This is a new problem that is happening more frequently, and it will probably lead to a major surgery. Once we got to the hospital, we stayed in touch with the kids throughout the day, and Kathryn seemed to remain fairly stable, although not completely normal.

Jaden’s surgery went well, but because of monitor malfunctions and a not-super-considerate nighttime staff, we only got one hour of sleep that night.

Jaden - Rod Lengthening 1-9-16

As we headed home Tuesday morning with Jaden, I called home to check on Kathryn again and learned that things were suddenly getting worse. It sounded like a possible UTI. So about a half-hour after walking in the door, getting Jaden’s pain under control, and catheterizing Kathryn again, I was on my way back to the hospital with a sterile urine specimen.

That night, as we tried to have a little homecoming celebration for Jaden, Kathryn’s pain increased, and we had to reach out to the urologist on call. Plans were made to get us through the night until we could get her to the urology clinic the next day and have a Foley placed. We did get through that night and even got a full night’s sleep.

Wednesday morning, as Scott and I were getting Kathryn ready to head to urology, Nathan had another seizure. A mild one this time, but still so worrisome as no one can figure out what’s causing these. We are trying to watch him closely until we see our neurologist again in a couple of weeks.

By the time Scott and I got back home with Kathryn that evening, a deep, consuming fatigue had settled over both of us. I felt tireder than I could remember feeling in months. I sat in the family room under my new soft, fleecy throw and looked around at my huge family. I could see the effects all of this was having on them, too. The older ones all looked so very tired. Our kids work so hard every day. And mostly they do this with joy and precision, and they are learning valuable skills that will serve them well in life. But the toll of the past year was showing on all of them, too.

Our little ones get the trickle-down effects of exhaustion from all of us who care for them, and this usually begins to manifest in them as a kind of sadness, emotional fragility, neediness, and sometimes naughtiness.

As I sat on the couch Wednesday night, I recognized that old longing for a tomato-soup-old-movies-on-the couch-all-alone day. For years, I’ve ignored that longing and just pushed on because . . . well  . . . 19 kids still at home.

Then suddenly, I thought to myself, “What if we all took a tomato soup day tomorrow? Together?”

I described my dream out loud and every face in the room lit up. Every child, from the oldest child to the youngest, looked as if the weight of the world had been lifted from their shoulders at the mere thought of such a ridiculous idea.

I mean, we really needed to get back to school; and Thursday is deep cleaning and sheet-washing day at our house; and there are always the necessary daily bowel and bladder regimens for multiple kids; and the younger kids all needed baths that day.

And just meal prep alone makes a “day off” impossible. Preparing three meals a day for 21 people is hard. Just really, really hard. And the clean-up after each of those meals is like cleaning up after a dinner party — over and over and over again.

On top of all of this, Scott and I were supposed to be eating on our Whole 30 plan (which doesn’t include creamy tomato soup!).

Then, when I said emphatically, “We’re going to do it! We are going to try to shut out the entire world and just stop everything and rest. We need a bit of a reset,” it was like beautiful, fresh air and sunlight poured into our room through the huge glowing smiles of excitement on the kids’ faces.

One of my rules for our Tomato Soup Day was no planning! Well, as little planning as possible, anyway.

Planning is maybe the most exhausting aspect of my life. I’m a natural planner/organizer, and this is a good thing if you just happen to grow up and become Mom to 22 children. Because everything about running a household this size takes constant planning.

But it can be a curse, too. My brain never, ever stops. Most of the time, it’s even still working in my sleep. This is proven by the fact that I even plan in my dreams. Pretty much 24 hours a day, I feel like that circus act. You know, the one with all those plates balanced on those long sticks, spinning, spinning, spinning?

Except that our daily schedule is an always-evolving thing because of so many “unexpected’s.” So I also have to constantly be shifting plates from here to there while continuing to balance and spin them.

I wanted to put all of those plates and sticks down and rest my arms for a little while. Just a little while.

So, Thursday morning we started our totally wasted day. It did require a little bit of planning, though, to get it started. The kids were a little lost with no schedule, and just stood around in the family room looking at me.

Ok. How do we do this? 

  • Forget the house cleaning today, but let’s go ahead and get the sheets washed. Everyone work together to get them back on the beds as they come out of the dryer throughout the day.
  • Forget the kids’ baths. They don’t smell that bad yet. We will have to keep up with the every-three-hour catheterizations and keep Kathryn’s Foley bag emptied and do all of the necessary bladder/bowel routines. But no baths. 
  • Punt school. One more missed day won’t change anybody’s futures. 
  • No cooking at all. Everyone needs a day off in the kitchen. 
  • We can’t watch only old movies, because they aren’t that entertaining for the younger kids, so we’ll also pull in some Hulu and Netflix. 

From the beginning, the kids were beaming, and Scott got into the spirit of things by introducing the kids to Matlock right away. We were off to a good start.

Three of the teens asked to bake cookies with the M&M’s a friend brought to our house the day before. This baking and clean-up represented fun to them; not work. So, in spite of the fact that we have cut way back on any kinds of sweets here, I said, “What the heck! Bake away!”

As the morning really got going, I decided to introduce them all to That Girl — my absolute favorite TV show when I was a kid. I mean, I loved Ann Marie and her boyfriend Donald Hollinger. For much of my childhood and pre-teen years, I wanted to be her!

We all got comfortable with our fleece throws and watched episode after episode, the little ones giggling their heads off on the floor, the teens sometimes rolling their eyes at Ann’s antics, and Kathryn snuggled in beside me on the couch looking up from time to time to just smile at me with joy and stroke my arm or face. She clearly felt that all was right in her little world.

Tomato Soup Day #2

And it rained outside, which made the whole day even more delightful! 

At lunch time, we ordered tons of tomato soup from Panera. Thanks to a recent surprise financial gift, this was the first pay period in many months we hadn’t run out of money before the end. It was pay day again the next day, and we still had money in the bank!

Tomato Soup Day #3

After lunch in front of more episodes of That Girl, everyone ate one cookie then quickly did a clean-up (which involved gathering everything up and throwing it into a garbage bag).

Tomato Soup Day #4

Then we settled in to watch the awesomely classic movie, Holiday, while the rain poured outside. Oh, Kate shines in that one! And the magic between her and Cary Grant! Love, love, love it! The little ones did puzzles on the floor and the older girls held their breath and hoped that Johnny and Linda would end up together. The older boys hung in there with us.

Tomato Soup Day #7

After this movie, we ordered Chinese noodles for dinner and spent the rest of the evening watching episodes of The Flash. 

Tomato Soup Day #8

Another garbage-bag clean up, and then we all went to bed feeling happy, peaceful, rested.

I was unsure about sharing this day with the outside world. Partly because it was so private; so personal; so special for just our family.

And partly because I know that many people will feel that we acted irresponsibly.

To throw a whole day of school away? 

To sit in front of a television all day!?  

To set an example for our children of such laziness and shirking of responsibilities?

And to be SO wasteful with money?! We had food in the house that we could’ve prepared for meals. And money is not something handled lightly around here. There’s almost never quite enough of it, and when there is a little extra, there are always places it needs to be used. So to throw it away on restaurant tomato soup and Chinese noodles?!? 

I have to be honest and admit that I did wrestle with some guilt as I tried to fall asleep the night before our planned wasted day. But before I finally closed my eyes, I decided a few things.

  • My head said this was irresponsible, but my heart said this was so very right. I chose to go with my heart. 
  • We try hard to make the right decisions about things like this, and we know that we will never please everyone out there who watches us live such a public life. And we know that we will never get it right all the time. But God knows the desire of our hearts, and He doesn’t expect perfection from us. If we truly examined this and felt it was the best thing for our family, but then someday discovered that we had been wrong, well, I knew that God’s mercy and love would always hold us close to His heart anyway. 
  • If we were going to do this, we were going all in. I wasn’t about to throw away this opportunity to waste a day and not get everything out of it that I could. 

So I threw off that guilt and embraced our plans for a mostly-no-plans day.

And now that it’s behind us, I have no doubts at all that we were right to do this.

It was so much NOT a wasted day!  

I lost count of the times the kids came to us just to tell us how much fun they were having.

I’ll never, ever forget the joy on their faces all through the day.

The peaceful, restful looks on the older kids faces alone confirmed that it was time for a rest. It was important that Scott and I acknowledged how hard they work by giving them a day to rest, and it was critical that they all catch their breath a bit.

And I know from 35 years of parenting that the memory of this day will live on with all of them forever. Somehow, this will be important. I can’t explain how I know this, but I’m sure of it. It will be something that they all look back on and draw strength and joy from throughout their lives.

They have all asked that we try to work Tomato Soup Days into our lives on a somewhat regular basis. And we have promised to try to make them happen at least a couple times a year from now on.

Maybe the whole world needs to take a Tomato Soup Day. Just stop everything for a day and reset.

I hope we are teaching our kids important lessons about balance. About stopping to breathe sometimes. About the things in life that are truly important — family, spending time together, laughter, rest . . .

Maybe we would all be much better off if we occasionally chose to waste an entire day here and there. And ate more tomato soup. And watched more That Girl and old movies.

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Some Rain Must Fall

“Into each life some rain must fall.”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Today was one of those days. It started with only about three hours of sleep last night. Sick kids; my dread of trying to juggle the kids’ school along with all of the appointments waiting for us this week and next week; and a sudden return of what our neurologist thinks are seizures for Nathan — all combined to keep my mind too abuzz for sleep.

I called the neurologist’s office when I got up and scheduled an appointment on January 26 for Nathan to see him again and discuss further testing. Then I hurried through school this morning with a dopey, achy head before heading out into the dreary, rainy weather for a blood draw for Kathryn and on downtown for urology testing on Roslyn and Kathryn, followed by an appointment with their urologist.

The girls’ test results weren’t good. The bladder surgery done in September on Roslyn seems to be failing. We are probably looking at another huge bladder surgery for her, but our doctor is going to try one other thing first. We should know within the next six weeks if this will work or not.

And Kathryn’s bladder seems to possibly be getting tired of fighting the incredibly strong muscle tightness in her pelvic floor, caused by her cerebral palsy. Indications are that it just might be, in our doctor’s words, giving out on her. Her recent bouts with infection and severe bladder retention support this possibility. He will first try increasing her medication, but there’s a pretty good chance that, at some point sooner or later, she will also be forced to undergo a major bladder surgery that will then make it necessary to add her to the list of our six kids already catheterizing every three hours.

All of this, combined with the wretched drive back home in pouring rain and ridiculously heavy traffic, just seemed to be more than I could deal with in a mature way after so little sleep last night.

Haven’t my babies been through enough?! All of them! Their lives have already been so very hard! Don’t they deserve a break?!

And where do Scott and I find the strength to add more really major and unexpected surgeries into our lives!?

Enough already! 

I stood out in the drizzle on our deck tonight and looked up into the dark sky. Searching for  peace.

“God, are you there?  It’s me again. I’m kinda mad at you right now.”

Some Rain Must Fall
As I stared at the raindrops and into the heavy darkness around me, I made myself look for those puddles of sunshine I’ve referred to before. Those whispers that God is still by my side as He has promised to be. And as I forced myself to rise above my dismal mood, I realized that I had actually stepped in a few of them throughout the day.
  • My neighbor was suddenly able to go and pick up my Click List order for me this morning when she didn’t think she would be able to. This greatly lessened the stress in our day. 
  • My awesome kids worked as a team to put a pot of spaghetti and a salad together for dinner. The table was set and dinner was ready when we finally got home.
  • And the seven kids who have been sick with colds this week already seem to be improving a bit.

It would be wrong of me to ignore these blessings.

But I’m tired. So very tired. Sometimes there are days and pieces of news that are just predominantly bad. That’s life here in this world. And I think it’s okay to acknowledge that.

Sometimes it’s okay to cry a little bit, maybe even throw a little temper tantrum, then go to bed early and pray for strength to carry on tomorrow.

The final stanza of this poem written by Longfellow (a man well-acquainted with grief and pain and bitter disappointment in this life), somehow seems to coat my weary sadness with something that’s kind of soothing.

I know that behind the clouds darkening my world tonight, our true Sun is shining brightly and still holding me close to His heart.

Tomorrow is a whole new day. A day that I’m not required to carry right now. So I choose not to.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary. 
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The Little Black Boy Came

Silence. Like a stiflingly hot summer day without even a hint of a breeze. That’s how the Christian walk sometimes feels when needs are great and God seems absent.

Prayers seem to float out of our mouths and hang, suspended in the still air. Unheard. Unanswered.

Scripture assures us that every cry — even the ones that never make it from our hearts to our mouths — is heard by the God of the Universe; our loving, compassionate Father; the One who has promised to meet all our needs. And that He will answer.

But there are times . . . times when our feeble hearts struggle to hold onto this truth.

Like now. Today. This very hot summer morning.

So I think about this: “The little black boy came!”

. . . . . . . .

One year ago today, Scott and I boarded a plane and flew to Oklahoma. One year ago tomorrow, we met him for the first time. Six years old. Clumsy, awkward body, communicating stress and anxiety in every movement; fearful, darting eyes full of confusion; beautiful ebony skin; tangled, kinky hair; shy, uncertain smile. Our son.

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Our first meeting with our new son

His young life had already been very hard. Born to a young African birth mom who lived on the streets, he spent the first couple of years of his life surviving there with her. We’ve been told that it was an abusive relationship.

He eventually ended up in an orphanage and, after awhile, was adopted by a family in the United States. Sadly, this adoption did not work out. And it became clear to us almost immediately that he not only felt responsible for this “failure.” but that the fear of “causing” the same thing to happen in his new family pretty much dominated his little being.

Those first few days and weeks were incredibly hard. It required so much energy to stay on top of his constant motion. So much patience to deal with the outbursts of anger. So many prayers to find words for assuring him that we were there to stay forever, that it was not his fault that his first adoption had failed, and that nothing he could ever do would make us give up on him.

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Very scared to trust this new daddy

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After a few days, we were beginning to get some genuine smiles and even giggles

We were immediately and palpably aware of his sweet, tender spirit hiding under all of that fear and anger and guilt. And this gave wings to our determination as we threw ourselves into pulling this little one close to our hearts and trying to breathe healing into every fiber of the broken little him.

The love we felt for him was instant, and although it was clear that he was afraid to believe that love could really be true, he began very tentatively responding to it almost right away.

We chose the name Nolan David for him. It means “beloved noble one.” We so loved this courageous and strong little boy.

And we chose a very special song for him — Andrew Peterson’s, “Rest Easy.” These lyrics were perfect for him:

You don’t have to work so hard
You can rest easy
You don’t have to prove yourself
You’re already mine
You don’t have to hide your heart
I already love you
I hold it in mine
So you can rest easy

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Nolan continually asked, with great anxiety, if we were really, really sure the other kids wanted him to come home to them. When we drove up to our house and he saw this sign they had made for him, his heart almost burst with relief and joy.

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His sweet, sweet spirit sang out loudly through his interactions with this new very fragile sister. He shared his precious Lamby with her as soon as he met her.

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He immediately fell in love with our dogs, and Saxon, as always, faithfully welcomed this new little one home and offered comfort from their first meeting.

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It was a joyous day when we all removed the armbands we had been wearing while waiting for Nolan to come home.

And healing happened! And continues happening every day.

Not long after Nolan came home to us, we were having a family discussion about delayed answers to prayer. About God’s seemingly indifferent silences to the pouring out of the desires of our hearts. We all took turns sharing something we had prayed a very long time for, or that we were still praying for.

By the time it was my turn to share, the younger children had begun to drift off into bored daydreams, but they were all sitting still and quiet, including Nolan. I said, “I prayed for ten years that God would bring me a little black boy.” (This was very true, and for reasons that I could never explain, I continually felt that our family wouldn’t be complete until God had answered that prayer.)

Suddenly Nolan, who had been sitting in distracted quietness beside me, jumped off of the couch, threw his arms out wide, looked me in the eyes, and proclaimed with a glowing face and a voice that gushed with joy, “The little black boy came!!!”  

My eyes still fill with tears of happiness as I type out that memory. So much truth and emotion and encouragement and wisdom packed into those words!

God tarried until just the right time; waiting for just the right little black boy and for just the right moment in our lives. He had been listening to my prayers all through that long decade, but His timing is always perfect.

Today (and anytime in the future), as I wrestle with God’s silence over some very great needs our family is facing, I will remember this. “The little black boy came!”

Although, personally I love Nolan’s way of speaking this truth, Richard Sibbes, also did a pretty good job of it back in the 16th century.

“To pray properly is not any easy matter. To pour out your heart and soul before God, to believe He hears and will come to help you; to pray in faith and to wrestle with Him; to strive for a blessing and hope against hope; being delayed, yet waiting for Him until He comes; this is exceeding hard to be done. Our ignorance of the nature and methods of God hinders us from praying properly. We have a false image of God and view Him more like one of us, and not as One filling heaven and earth with His majesty and glory. Though He is so good to us, our prayers are weak and cold. We view delays as denials, our faith wavers and we are discouraged and give up.”
~ Richard Sibbes (1577–1635)

As we celebrate this one-year anniversary of our first meeting with this remarkable son, and rejoice over his healing and all of the beauty he brings to this family, I will refuse to “view delays as denials.”  I will try harder not to become “discouraged and give up.”

I will wait for God’s answers, and watch for signs that He is hearing me in the silences.

This is our beloved noble one today.

TheBlackBoyCame1

A little photo-journey through Nolan’s first year at home.

TheBlackBoyCame10

Nolan was so proud when he finally learned enough self-control to push a kid-sized grocery cart through the store with me.

TheBlackBoyCame11

Trusting his daddy enough now to let him toss him into the air.

TheBlackBoyCame9

“Nolan paper dolls” made for him by one of his brothers (I LOVE these!)

TheBlackBoyCame12

Such a perfect fit

TheBlackBoyCame14

His first birthday with his new family, surrounded by the love of siblings, nieces, and nephews

TheBlackBoyCame15

A very special visit with a very special Santa

TheBlackBoyCame16

Everyone to court for Nolan’s adoption finalization with our dearly loved Judge Rogers

TheBlackBoyCame17

A family movie night

TheBlackBoyCame18

Bonding with his new family deepened even more as we all temporarily relocated to Knoxville and helped Daddy through his cancer treatments together.

If you are waiting and waiting and waiting for answers to some prayer. Remind yourself today that “the little black boy came!!”

TheBlackBoyCame1

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Emptying the Pockets of Our Lives

“Extravagant love, the offering of everything, the emptying of the pockets of our life, is the essence of true Christianity.” ~ Eric Ludy

From Our Grandpa Tree

A gift.

A beautiful step stool.

But so much more than that. 

A symbol of hope.

A reminder of God’s goodness and the love of His people.

A week or so ago, Scott and I, along with our kids, were discussing this life we chose to accept years ago when God offered us the opportunity to dive in and drink deeply. He has revealed so much of Himself, and so much about our own brokenness, in the years since that decision was made.

And so much about the love and goodness in the hearts of others.

I so clearly remember how more and more children came home, and our 2000 sq. ft. house became as crowded as our calendar full of appointments for these new children with so many special needs. Our entire life changed drastically, although somewhat gradually.

Eventually, Scott walked away from his engineering career and salary to come home and serve as full-time director of The Shepherd’s Crook Orphan Ministry. And we learned to get by with less and to trust God more, although we definitely didn’t do this perfectly.

Time continued to pass until the day came when we were no longer always able to provide Christmas or shoes or new clothes each season for our increasingly larger brood; our furniture began to wear out; walls became desperate for paint; cars got old and broke down; our home improvement projects went undone because of so little money and so little time.

There were specific times during those sometimes-very-hard-years when I was faced with new levels of surrender as I occasionally felt tempted to succumb to feelings of self pity concerning the gradual decline of our beautiful house and our inability to give the children all we longed to give them. I knew that God would provide for us, and although it was tough at times, we embraced broken furniture, worn-out carpet, and beaten-up walls as part of God’s plan for our lives. We trusted Him to decide for us what our real needs were, and what things were only “wants.” He filled us and our home with joy, and pointed out to me areas where I was still clinging to my old human desires for our lives.

And He blessed us so much — sometimes with additional painful opportunities to trust Him better, but often with exactly those things we thought we would never have.

He sent people to help with projects. Friends and strangers came to our home on so many occasions to paint, plant flowers, clean or even replace carpet, do home repairs, etc.

Every year He has provided through others whatever was needed for clothing our children or making Christmas magical for them; gifts that made it possible for us to take them to movies or concerts or other enriching family outings; and He even gave us an occasional family vacation. We have never asked for these things or publicly made our wants or needs for them known. But He always provides.

He is gradually providing us with more space in which to raise all of these children with their special equipment and adaptive devices. This is being done through the love and sacrifice of others — brothers and sisters from our church congregation, neighbors, strangers, friends (some local and some from far away), businesses, organizations like Make-a-Wish . . .

We have most recently been blessed with a huge, beautiful kitchen to replace my old, very small one; family room furniture that is brand new and beautiful (I never imagined such a thing!), money to purchase picture frames and photo ledges in order to make our family room a place where our once-orphaned children can daily look at our walls and see proof that they are finally home and part of a family; a swimming pool to help with all of their physical therapy needs; a deck around that pool to allow for those who struggle with CP or lower limb paralysis to wheel to the edge and independently lower themselves into this pool; a play room with enough space for all of them to play; and toys and equipment in this play room to spark imagination and strengthen weakened or paralyzed muscles.

Family Room and Kitchen

Playroom Almost Done - 7

The giving just goes on and on. And we are humbled — awed by the incomprehensible goodness of our God. We know that we can trust Him in the bad times  — the times when we don’t know how we will provide for upcoming needs; the times when we watch our children try to cope with almost unimaginable pain or emotional brokenness beyond the comprehension of most; the times when Scott and I come face to face with the reality of our own weakness and immortality (as when Scott was recently diagnosed with cancer) — and we can trust Him in the good times when He showers us with so many gifts that we find ourselves feeling awkward and uncomfortable in the certain knowledge that we do not deserve such unexpected blessings. (That could be a whole blog post all by itself. Maybe someday.)

And continually we are left with a complete inability to express to a such multitude of people the depth of our gratitude for this giving that stretches through a couple of decades.

Several years ago, the Rosenow Home Project Team was formed by people who love us dearly and longed to find a way to provide more living space for us. After years of raising funds and praying with us for this need, they finally had enough money to break ground on the home addition that would double the size of our existing home.

Sitting right in the middle of what would become our new family room was this tree.

Home Addition - Goodbye G'pa Tree

It had been planted almost twenty years earlier in memory of Scott’s dad, who had passed away just before we moved into this house. We always called it our Grandpa Tree. It broke our hearts that this tree would have to be cut down in order to make way for the space needed to carry on the work God had called us to.

Dad's Tree

Our baby Grandpa Tree the day we planted it in 1996

Just before the scheduled ground-breaking, we devoted a day to loving on this tree, reflecting on the memories we had of Grandpa and this tree’s growth in our yard, and giving the kids a full day to climb in its branches and make some new memories. This was an especially poignant day for our blind son Colin who had wanted to climb a tree, but had never done so.

Then the construction equipment rolled into our backyard, and we all stood inside the house, watching through the windows as our Grandpa Tree was ripped violently from the ground and broken into pieces. There were tears as we felt many different “feels” — sadness over the passing of a season in our lives, excitement about the new season to come, such thankfulness for the massive answers to hundreds of prayers about more space for our growing family.

Home Addition - Goodbye G'pa Tree #5

Scott and the kids took some cuttings from the tree, with the hope that we could start another, but they didn’t survive the winter.

That was three and a half years ago. Since that time, our home addition has been being slowly, gradually, beautifully  completed as these loving friends and strangers continue raising funds and pouring themselves into finding ways to come alongside us to care for orphans.

Home Addition - GB 12-11 #13

Rainy ground-breaking ceremony for our home addition

And then a couple of weeks ago, one of the main players in this decade-and-a-half-long drama, showed up at our house with this step stool.

He had, with his own hands and in his own precious spare time, lovingly crafted this amazing gift from the wood of our Grandpa Tree. He had been secretly working on it in the years since the tree had been taken from its place in our backyard, and he delivered it to us along with a copy of the book, The Giving Tree.

If you aren’t familiar with this book, it’s a children’s story about giving and giving until we have nothing left to give; about the joy that comes from this kind of selfless sacrifice; and about unconditional love — all things that should be part of Believers’ lives during our pilgrimage in this world.

And both the gift and the book are extremely symbolic of our family’s life. The giving of others that is such an integral part of our journey.

We wish there were some way for all of those who have given and given and given, to understand what an example they have been to our children of how to live as servants of the King; lights in the world.

Over and over again, you have all given us hope when the Enemy who hates the work we do tries to trick us into feeling that a given situation is hopeless. You have put strength into our hearts when we felt we were gasping our last. You have encouraged us beyond description when seemingly unanswered prayers and events in our lives have beaten us down to dark places of discouragement. You have served as shining lights of remembrance when we have lost our way and forgotten God’s promises to care of His children in such perfect ways.

To all of you who have “emptied the pockets of your lives” in service for our family and in the furthering of God’s work and kingdom, we thank you with all our hearts.

And, Mark, we will forever cherish this step stool sitting in our new kitchen, reminding us of God’s goodness and constant presence in our lives, as our “Grandpa Tree” continues serving our family.

Stool and Book

 

 

 

 

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Sometimes You Have to do the Hard Things

This morning, an IUD was placed in my baby’s uterus.

Scott and I drove over snowy roads to Children’s Hospital early this morning and handed our baby girl over to the staff there so that they could place this foreign object into her body because we felt like we had no other choice. It was the best decision we could make for her under the circumstances. But I still feel in my heart that it was a crappy decision.

Kathryn's IUD Insertion #1

Beautiful early-morning drive to Children’s

The emotional impact of this for me is much bigger than I can describe to anyone. I’m still trying to process all that I’m feeling deep inside. I slept very little last night. I don’t know how to explain why this is so hard.

This topic of helping our “forever-babies” children through the challenging aspects of puberty is a hot topic. In sharing this post, I realize that I open myself up to the possibility of some harsh criticism. I’m not sure my tender heart is up for that.

But maybe my struggles can help some other mom through this heart-breaking piece of raising a child who will never grow up. So I will share.

I don’t have any answers, and I can’t make these tough and very personal decisions for anyone else. But sometimes it helps just to know that you aren’t alone, so . . .

Kathryn will always be a four-year-old at best — a two or three-year-old in most areas. But her body doesn’t recognize this. We knew this day would come, and we felt sure that it would be a terrifying thing for her when it did.

Kathryn's 11th and Mother's Day #4

It has been even worse than we feared. Our sweet baby was plagued with such heavy menstrual cycles that her world was turned upside down for three weeks out of the month. Intense cramping and ten to fourteen days of heavy bleeding were more than her baby self could understand. We watched her shut down emotionally during those weeks and lose hard-won ground developmentally. She regained this ground just in time for the whole process to start over again.

So we did something I swore I would never do. We agreed to let her doctor start her on oral hormones. These did stop her cycles and allow her to function more along her normal curve. But they also added another twelve pounds to a body that fights continually with a much-slower-than-normal metabolism — a body that is already so encumbered by cerebral palsy that it doesn’t need extra weight adding to the gravitational challenges of any type of movement. And I worry so much about the effects of synthetic hormones on her body and system.

We visited doctor after doctor as we searched for someone who would make a way for us to have her uterus removed. That incredibly designed organ that God has placed inside of woman is there for one reason. To provide a warm, safe place for a baby to grow to a point of viability in the harsh world. My sweet little girl will never need a place in her body to carry a baby. As worried as we were about such a major surgery for her, we felt it was the best, and safest, solution for ending her physical and emotional monthly agony.

In spite of the fact that we did find one very kind doctor who agreed that this would be the best choice for our little girl, she made it clear that no hospital ethics committee would ever allow it. She explained that we would have to engage in an intense, drawn out battle we could never, ever win. And that we would probably make enemies along the way. Much more severe cases than our Kathryn’s have already been tossed about in this sea of medical ethics, and the results of those battles have made it very clear where the lines have been drawn.

In an attempt to prevent parents from sterilizing children who might actually be capable of parenting a child someday, a system that allows thirteen-year-olds to have abortions without their parents’ knowledge or consent has gone even crazier. The parents of children who have absolutely no hope of ever reaching parenting abilities in life are now forced to make choices they would never otherwise make for their children, or in many cases, even for themselves.

Kathryn trusts us with her whole heart in a way that very few humans are ever able to trust any other human. She innocently accepts whatever we tell her is best for her and depends on us to take care of her. Sometimes the responsibility of getting this right and never accidentally betraying her trust is more than I can bear. And sometimes, sadly, doing what’s best for her means you have to do the hard things, wondering all along the way if you’ve made the right decision.

And that’s how we ended up at Children’s Hospital this morning for this procedure on our baby girl.

Kathryn's IUD Insertion #2

Kathryn, not really understanding what’s going on, but so excited about her new My Little Ponies for her “surgery” gift this morning

Kathryn's IUD Insertion #3

My brave girl totally rocked her IV insertion

The self-pitying, aching-mommy-heart part of me is tempted to hurl accusing questions at the God who writes our stories.

Why, oh why, if You are going to create some special angel-children whose minds will never grow up, can’t you also make it so that their bodies don’t grow up?  

Isn’t it enough that Kathryn already has to fight for every minor accomplishment in life? That seizures and cerebral palsy are part of her daily reality? That her world is already so often a very confusing place for her? 

Isn’t it enough that Scott and I are already trudging along in search of cancer treatment for him and trying to find the right timing for a massive spine surgery for one daughter and major bladder reconstruction surgeries for three other kids? And continuing to look for answers for Nathan’s incapacitating leg and back pain?

Did we really need this on top of everything else? 

I know that this world is not our home. I know that this is a temporary stopping place and that our spirits that will someday soar free — unencumbered by brokenness and limits — are trapped inside bodies that are horribly imperfect.

Once, many years ago, while trying to explain to one of our sons the difference between our souls — the real us — and the bodies that house those souls for now, he exclaimed, “Oh, so our bodies are like a shoebox. And we’re kind of like the shoes inside!” 

Yes!

And since that time, we have pretty commonly referred to these designed-by-God, yet hopelessly-flawed, earthly  homes for our souls, as “these old shoe boxes.”  They are plagued with poor eyesight, arthritis, cancer. They get fat and break down and behave in all kinds of uncooperative ways.

So deep in my heart I know that, in the big picture, this is not such a huge deal.  We do the best we can and move through this life, looking forward to the day when we are all set free from these earthly bodies and joined together in eternal joy, perfect peace, and glorious fellowship with our Savior and Heavenly Father. (I can’t wait to see my Kathryn dancing through the streets of Heaven, with no cerebral palsy!)

But there are times when the day-to-day working out of our lives here seems to swallow up any picture of the future that we know is ahead for us. And today, I’m feeling a little bit lost in it all. And sad.

Kathryn's IUD Insertion #4

Kathryn coming out of anesthesia with her “Little Murray” on her shoulder, and a photo of her family gripped tightly in her right hand

I am so thankful for an infinitely patient Heavenly Father who understands my deep-inside feelings even better than I do myself. I’m so grateful for the ways He has helped me learn to trust Him even when things seem so very out of control and wrong. I cherish the love that He pours over me when He holds me close while I ask human questions and cry the pain out of my heart onto His waiting shoulder. And I hold onto His promises to help me care for the precious ones He has placed in my arms and in my heart.

Lord, you have searched me and known me!
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
 You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
Psalm 139:1-4

I have loved you with an everlasting love!
Jeremiah 31:3

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
Isaiah 40:11

 

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It Doesn’t Really Matter Now

I spent the whole day Tuesday in my pajamas. Mostly sitting on the couch, checking Facebook and messages over and over and over again, waiting for word that my friend had died.

Suzy

Suzy’s well-known smile

I prayed. I cried. I remembered. And I cried and prayed some more.

It felt as if all of life had been suspended. Like we were all floating above time and waiting for the news I didn’t want to hear.

During the afternoon, I spent several hours reading back through years of correspondence between us.

Suzy and I met many years ago when Scott was in college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and I was pregnant with our first child. I worked for an endodontist, and Suzy worked next door for another doctor. We became friends.

Kristen and Me at Suzy Wheat's House

c. 1982 Kristen, our first child, with me at Suzy’s house; Suzy took this photo

After Scott graduated and we moved away from Tuscaloosa, Suzy and I swapped Christmas cards and photos for many, many years. And then gradually, we lost contact with each other.

Six years ago, we found each other again on Facebook. Things had been hard for her during the years we had lost touch.

But by the time we reconnected, she was starting a fresh life and wrestling with the concepts of God for the first time ever.

We wrote so many letters back and forth as she asked questions about her journey as a new Christian, and I did my best to answer those questions, assuring her that I was still trying to figure out these weighty concepts myself.

She told me that she was absolutely starving for a deeper understanding and a more passionate walk with this Father she had only fairly recently come to know. She longed for peace and knowledge.

And she asked great questions.

Through the years, I watched her grow and it seemed to me that she did find the peace and the assurance she was looking for, even as she — like the rest of us — continued to ask the hard questions.

I was so inspired as I watched her live such a full life that revolved around helping other people and rescuing abandoned animals.

I have no idea how many dogs found homes because of her and her husband. But I know that there are many.

Suzy and Puppies #1

Two of the many, many lucky puppies rescued by Suzy and her husband

She shared with me how much she loved her husband, her children, her granddaughter, her nephew. She prayed so much for all of them with a passion that longed for them to also know this peace.

She prayed for me. Constantly. Anytime I needed prayer about anything, she was right there. More than once, she even offered to drive from Tuscaloosa, AL, to Cincinnati in order to find some way to help me out when things were tough. When Scott was diagnosed with cancer two weeks ago, her first response was that she was praying; her second was that she would be here in a heartbeat if she could help in any way.

She was like that. She would drop everything — always with that great smile of hers — if any person or animal needed her. She was selfless.

This past October, she and her husband did drive to B’ham when our whole family was there speaking on adoption and orphan care. She came to hear us speak and to finally meet our children in person. It was so great just to see her face again and to hug her.

But why, oh why, did I not think to get a picture of us together?! The same thing happened the last time I saw my brother alive; I forgot to take any pictures. And then it was too late.

Before Scott and I left for Tampa last week, Suzy sent me a message. Continuing to thirst for deeper understanding and a closer walk with God, she wanted to know what devotional book I was using this year. I didn’t get a chance to answer that message before we left. I told myself I would answer it while we were in Tampa.

Unfortunately, I had underestimated how packed the schedule would be in Tampa.

And then . . . just two days into that busy schedule in FL, I got word that my friend had collapsed at work when her heart stopped with no warning. She fought hard through the weekend, but Tuesday morning I awoke to messages from her husband and her daughter, telling me that she would probably be in heaven within a few hours.

And I never answered her last question.

Which devotional book am I using this year? I am still using some of the same ones I told you about before, my sweet friend. And this year I have also added, Day by Day With the English Puritans; Scott gave it to me for Christmas. Now, it’s too late to tell you that.

But . . . it doesn’t really matter now. Because you are sitting at the feet of your Father! You are now able to worship Him truly and completely — just the way He intended when He created man and before sin entered this world and spoiled our beautiful fellowship with Him. There are no more limits to your ability to freely love this Savior you longed to know better. And you know Him fully now. You won’t be needing any more devotional books.

Your journey here on earth, so full of questions and the search for an intimate walk with our Creator is ended. You have that complete peace that can only come once we cross over into our Savior’s waiting arms. I’m so happy for you.

But I miss you. My heart aches at the knowledge that you are no longer just a few keystrokes away. Even as I type this post in your memory, I recognize that there’s a back corner of my brain that keeps thinking of questions I want to ask you; and almost instantly, the shocked realization (again and again) that I won’t be able to do that.

The world will miss you. You changed so many lives while you were here, and it was an honor beyond description to have been among those lives touched by your beauty and your love and your selflessness.

 “When my heart is brought to lie at the footstool of mercy, this seems to be the panting and breathing of my soul — to know experimentally and spiritually the blessed truths that my eyes see in the word of God, to have them opened up to my understanding, brought into my heart, grafted into my soul, applied to my conscience, and revealed with such supernatural and heavenly power that the truth as it is in Jesus may be in me a solemn and saving reality, that it may bring with it such a divine blessing as to fill me with grace, enlarge my heart into the enjoyment of the gospel, gird up my loins with spiritual strength, give and increase faith, communicate and encourage hope, shed abroad and draw forth love, and fill me with joy and peace in believing.”
~ Joseph Philpot (1802-1869)

 You searched diligently for these things in your life here. And now you know them in ways that the rest of us are waiting for still. Bask in His love, my friend. We will meet again in a few short years, I’m sure. Until then, relish the truth that, while you would not have chosen to leave your loved ones so soon, you now have all that your soul was longing to grasp while you were still here among us.

I love you, Suzy. Thank you for being my friend.

Suzy and Puppies #2

 

 

 

 

 

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