Road to Joplin

Day 2 with Joplin flag

This weekend I had the privilege of riding in a cycling event called the MS 150.  Every  year hundreds, if not a thousand or so cyclists make their way to a small town in southwest Missouri to complete a 150 mile bike ride.  This is done to bring attention and raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis.

This was my third year riding in this event.  I always seem to walk away from it with a great sense of accomplishment.  It is also quite humbling to be cheered on at the start line by people who live daily with MS.  This year, a woman with MS said to us, “When you get towards the last few miles and your legs are burning, just remember me saying Thank You.  Just remember that you are riding for many of us who cannot.”  Then, at the finish line, the same man every year, bound to his wheelchair, holds his hand out with a medal dangling from it.  As one reaches for his or her medal, the man gently says “thank you”.  It is quite humbling and I hope to ride in future 150’s.

This year though had even more of an impact on me, but for a different reason.  This is the first year that the ride took us back to Joplin, MO after the deadly tornado which claimed the lives of so many in May 2011.  Last year, the ride had to be rerouted and completely taken out of the Joplin area due to the devastation of the storm.  I had been there about a week or so after the tornado struck, and was silenced by what I had seen.  Cars with windshields blown out laying on top of each other, buildings that looked like they exploded by the force of a bomb, houses upon houses crumbled up like sticks, and trees stripped completely down to the bark.  It was shocking.  Just shocking.  The city I live in is close to Joplin and we are so lucky that the storm did not rumble its way towards us.

Although my work has taken me back to Joplin a few times, I usually do not drive through the area where the destruction took place.  This year, the MS committee planned the route specifically to take us through some of the path of the tornado.  Before I entered this area, my legs were screaming, my mind was off in some other place, there was pain tucked right in between my shoulders, and I was ready to be done.  I had been in the saddle for about seven hours, and my own “saddle” was telling me it was time to get off.

However, this changed when I entered the area where that beast of a storm stole normalcy from the lives of so many.  The few trees that survived were mangled.  Their bare branches looked like hands reaching towards the heavens in desperation.  Others bent over, all leaning to one side; yet, fresh green leaves bushed out from whatever spot they could find.

As I got closer to the eerily flattened area where houses once stood, I thought about the families and children who once lived there.  I imagined kickball being played in the streets, children swinging from swing sets, families walking their pet dogs or washing their cars.  All of this wiped clean.  Sure, there were new houses being built and definitely the vision of new growth could be seen, but I just kept thinking about how much destruction took place on those grounds.  The names of streets had been painted on the roads.  The ground was completely stripped of grass. There were partially crumbled buildings still being torn down.  It just went on and on.

As I drew nearer to the “end” of the destruction zone, I became overwhelmed with emotion.  I thought about the mothers who lost their babies, the babies who lost their daddies and mommies, and all the others who never woke again on this Earth to see the sun rise.  All I could think was “so much destruction, so much despair.”

But there in that moment on my bike with nothing but my own thoughts, I realized, or at least was reminded, that the Lord is not a god of destruction.  He is not a god of devastation.  He is not a god of despair.  He is the God of regrowth, rebirth, restoration, and life.  He lifts up our heads.  He carries us through the storms.  He gives us life.

The next morning as 800 or cyclists gathered around to start day two of the cycling event, small Joplin flags were handed out to each of us.  We placed them in our helmets, on our bikes, or held them in our hands as we rode through part of what was named “Memorial Miles”.  With just the sound of wind, the breathing of fellow riders, and the hissing-like noises from spinning our wheels, we rode in silence in honor of those killed by the Joplin tornado and in honor of the courage it has taken for the city to rebuild.

This year the road to Joplin became more than just a cycling event that I love to participate in.  Yes, it was done in an effort to support those struggling with Multiple Sclerosis.  However, I left the event with Joplin on my mind.  This weekend turned into a reminder of the blessing of health, of love, of family, of home, and of our incredible Heavenly Father who restores, renews, and leads us to Life.

Life in a Fish Bowl

Here is a brief part from my memoir I have stored away on my computer.  I am getting closer to making a decision about trying to publish it, but in the meantime, I am finding that parts of it inspire me to write blog posts that are not necessarily even related to my story at all.  This section is part of chapter two where I talk about the medical aspect of what occurred, as well as, my stay in the hospital.

There was an aquarium on the pediatric unit at the hospital that housed a Newt.  When I was able to, I visited Newton (not sure if this really was his name or if I called him that on my own) just about every day.  Our eyes would make contact, and I would stare at him in his fish bowl world wondering what he was thinking.  I wished I could have jumped in the tank with him and swam around to escape.  I too had people staring at me probably wondering what I was thinking or if I really understood what had happened.  My hospital room had become my own fish bowl.

Although this is from a section of my story about the time in the hospital, I cannot help but think that we are all living in “fish bowls”.  We tend to watch each others’ actions and form opinions based on how others are swimming around.  When sad times make their way into life, we sometimes stand by and watch the reactions of people.  Often, their reactions affect our responses.

What if instead of just standing there on the outside of the “tank”, we would all make a more committed effort to jump in and swim around a bit with those who are going through a difficult time?  I wonder how many people could be eternally impacted if Christians would walk alongside people we differ from, or people who are grieving, or lonely, or homeless, or orphaned, or guilty, or addicted, or whatever else makes us think we are on one side while they are on the other.

I know it is cliché to say “what would Jesus do?”….but seriously, “What would Jesus do?”  His life, as written in Scripture, depicts a Savior who walked with people most of us would stray from.  His love is for everyone….everyone.  We are all living life in a fish bowl.  We watch others, and more importantly, others are watching us.  I think it is time that Christians (including myself) stop wading in the shallow end of the pool with only those we are like, and jump in head first with those we are least like.  After all…”What Would Jesus Do?

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” – John 13:34

Out of the Mouth of Babes

(photograph by Sarah Carter – http://www.sarahcarterphoto.com)

My daughter and I were setting up a room in a local church where I was scheduled to train foster parents on grief and loss.  The room is mostly used for youth so the decorations were different from the usual church auditorium.  Coming out of the stage and across the ceiling was a gigantic sculpted tree that was grey in color.  I could see where a child might find it a little frightening; although, I know that was not the intent of the designer.

My daughter said to me, “I’m scared. That tree is scary.”  I comforted her and told her that there was no need to be afraid as mommy was with her.  Again she said, “Mommy, that tree is scary.”  This time I told her that mommy and God were in the room with her so she did not need to be afraid.  When I told her that God was in the room she said, “No, He isn’t.”  I gently said, “Oh yes He is. God is with you wherever you go so there is no reason to be afraid.”

By now, I could tell she was quite agitated with me for saying that God was in the room. She put her hands out in an exaggerated manner and shook them while she said, “No He is not.”  I asked her “Where is God then?”  She looked up at me with her gorgeous blue eyes and sweet expression and said “God is in my heart.”

At that moment, the hustle and bustle of trying to get the room set up while tending to a clinging, somewhat argumentative 3 and 1/2-year-old melted away and I was reminded of how pure child-like faith is.

Do I walk around as if God lives in my heart?  Do I remember on a daily basis the implication of accepting Christ in my life?  Do I treat others in a way that truly reflects the love of Christ?  I love that God uses children to declare His truth and to gently humble us in ways that are so unexpected.

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.  Psalm 8:2 (NIV) 

fostering His will

Back in 2006 when we first became foster parents, I was not really sure what to think about what we had just thrown ourselves into.  My husband and I understood the legalities and processes of being foster care parents, but of course, were not as prepared for the emotional and spiritual aspect of it.  I respected and followed the laws regarding reunification, but to be honest, deep down I knew that fostering children would help to fill the hole in my life that had existed due to being barren.

In some respects, it seemed that fostering was a noble cause, while on the other, it also felt like it was more about my needs.  In the end, we hoped to adopt but understood completely that there was no guarantee at all of this.

The same day we were licensed, we received our first placement of a precious little two-day-old baby boy.  We were ecstatic, excited, and nervous at the same time. The few first days with him were just a whirlwind of no sleep, visiting relatives, learning, and joy.  My body was so tired, but my mind was already set on imagining what was to come.  To be honest, I fell in love with him the minute I saw him.

On the Monday following the placement of this sweet little one in our home, the case worker called to establish visits, set up meetings, and to let me know they (the state) were looking into finding relatives.  This conversation was sobering and brought me back to the reality of being a foster care parent.  I was just someone to nourish this child while his birth parents gathered their lives back together.

As I was talking to her on the phone, this innocent little one was quietly sleeping in his crib.  He had no idea of the gravity of the conversation taking place.  His little life and the decisions being made for him were in the hands of the juvenile justice system.  As soon as the phone call ended, I dropped to the floor in front of his crib and immediately began sobbing.

In that moment of complete vulnerability, I started praying “Oh God, Your will not mine, Your will not mine, but if it is Your will for him to stay, Father, then show me the way Lord.  Help me through this.”  I held my hands up to Him as if I was holding this baby up to the Lord.

On my knees with my hands held up high facing this child that I was already passionately in love with was the most remarkable, yet heartbreaking moment of the beginning of my foster care journey.  In that moment, the Lord said to me “Caroline, this is not about you.  This is not about you.”

This was an “aha” moment, or more like an Amen moment.  Fostering this child really was not about me.  I thought going into it that I would be offering a “service” while getting my fill of mommy-moments, and that it would all just be okay.  Looking back, I believe that the Lord was proving Himself by refining me to be a person of less selfish desires and more humility.  This was about this child and his birth parents.  It was about the Lord’s will, not mine.

There were times throughout fostering him that I wondered and fretted over what the future held.  Again though, the Lord reminded me that I just had to act in love.  I had to wake up every day with the intention of being a loving foster parent to this child and of showing mercy to his birth mother.  One foot in front of the other…one day at a time.

Strange as it may sound, fostering a child with whom you would give your life for is like trying to swim in mud.  The more you try, the more energy you exert, and the more love you give, the thicker the mud seems to get.  Fostering this little one was also one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

Daily, the Lord gently reminded me that this journey was not about me, but about His will and His intentions over this child.  He also provided me with moments to walk humbly and act mercifully.  The Lord implored me to show love and to increase my prayer life.

Through prayer I found submission and trust; not just trust of a few of the details, but trusting God with complete wholeness.  His plan for our lives outweighed our intentions and was more powerful than anyone else’s.  My daily prayers for this baby boy included praying steadfastly for the Lord’s will.  They also included asking the Lord to help me put my desires behind and that He would bring clarity and intervention as fitting and according to His plan.

As the case moved along, I found myself more and more in love with the sweet one, but I also found myself caring deeply for his birth mother.  Some people said to me “I don’t know how you do it.”  I know how.  My faith became stronger, my leaning on His wisdom became more pure, and I met the Lord through His continual guidance that the only way to walk this path was with love.

When the case was over, almost two years later, we adopted our sweet boy.  I am so incredibly grateful and keenly aware of this tremendous blessing.  I am even more thankful though that I had to fall on my knees with hands held high, with tears streaming down my cheek, and with a heart of submission declaring “Oh God, Your will, not mine”.

Letter to my Lord

If I wrote a letter to my Lord, how would I start it? What would I say? Thank you for being there…or thank you for all of the good things that have happened through the years.  I could never fully convey the magnitude of what I am truly grateful for.  He deserves more than simplistic validations of what I appreciate.

It is not just the good things that I should be thankful for, anyway. The hard stuff – those moments that have torn me into pieces – also deserve their place in gratefulness to God. It would be a false statement for me to say I’m totally 100% grateful all of the time for being barren. Certainly, this has brought me a tremendous amount of strife. However, I sincerely appreciate the journey of it.

One might expect me to say that the best part of the journey is the adoption of my children. Well…they certainly are incredible, that’s for sure. However, for me, the best part of it has been the revelation of all the small moments, twists, turns, ups, downs, and in-betweens that helped to write the story.

Often, it is far easier to look backwards and say “I get it” than to look forward in faith. I don’t really think I could appreciate the road it took to become a mother if I had known in advance that there would be a little boy with blonde hair and a fantastic amount of charm, and a girl with bright blue eyes and blend of sugar and spice (mostly spice) who would enter my life. The road was full of painful ruts, sudden curves, and sadness as thick as tar, but still, it was the road that led to my children.

My sojourn into the world of infertility seemed so long; yet, not really. When looking back all those years ago after my surgery, I truly thought I would forever be stuck in the darkness of being barren. I know now that all those thoughts and years are just “blips” on the radar screen compared to the brilliance of the ride I’m experiencing as a parent.

I have found and continue to find great peace when realizing what all occurred to get me to this part of my life.  From the moment I woke up in the hospital bed following surgery, to the recognition as an eleven year old that I was different than my peers, to the angst as a teen wondering if true love would ever find me, to the despair of nearly convincing myself that I would never be a parent, to the longing of wanting a “normal” mommy-hood, to being captured and redeemed by God’s grace, to signing our application to become foster parents, to the nervous drive to pick up the baby boy who needed us as his foster family, to the humbling conversations with his birth mother, to leaning my head on the steering wheel following court hearings exhausted from the unknowns, to the dripping of my tears onto the court room table at our son’s adoption hearing, to jumping in heart first again by saying yes to accepting our foster daughter, to staying up night after night with a newborn, to the day she was deemed eligible for adoption, to picking out her adoption dress, to explaining the best we can to our children that they are adopted, to each moment with them….the list goes on and on.  I suspect it will until my eyes gaze on Him.

Perhaps the letter to my Lord is not really one I would write at all.  Perhaps it is my life, or better yet, how I choose to live and recognize the spaces where all I was clinging on to was His mercy, His love, and His promise.  God filled in the story line.  He flushed out the details and colored the canvas.  Living a grace-giving, mercy-showing, Christ-seeking, and love-leading kind of life would speak more than a thousand words anyway.

Yes…

my life, the letter,

my heart, the message,

and His hands, the ink.