When People Leave

On a regular basis people come to our church, and on a regular basis people leave our church. For all sorts of reasons, they leave. This is the painful part of being a pastor. I am so very grateful that more people are coming than going these days, but every person who leaves is a loss not just to the church in an abstract way but a loss to me personally, and to our staff. As a pastor I hold people in my heart in a deep way, and I carry their stories with me. It is not a matter of “if” people will leave our church; it is rather a matter of “when.” After all, weather by God’s calling elsewhere, or entropy, or death – we are all on a journey. Each goodbye is painful, sometimes heart-wrenching. I think that just as it is in friendship, we will have our “communities of faith” for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Some friendships are for a reason, others a season, and some for a lifetime. Our churches are like that too. To be in a church for a lifetime is a rare and beautiful gift, and if you are given this gift, cherish it. Evelena is 94 years old and has been walking through the doors of our church building since she was 14. That is a rare and precious gift. She is a rare and precious gift whom we cherish.

When we decided to adopt a child from China, we imagined a child who was all alone, perhaps in a crib, with little attention or love. After we were “matched” with Lyla, we came to discover quite a different story! Lyla was in a home with the most fabulous and loving foster family. Hulu, her foster mom, immediately began video chatting with me daily so that Lyla could get to know her new mom even months before we met. We would send videos back and forth each day and I would sing to Lyla and read her stories and Hulu would play those videos for Lyla when we were still millions of miles apart. So when we finally met Lyla face-to-face, she already had been prepared in countless ways to be family.

The journey of a foster family is one of loving deeply and fully, and then letting go. Letting go is the final act of love. It is a picture of sacrificial love that is vulnerable, beautiful, and impossible to fully honor.

Hulu and her family gave Lyla (and us) a gift – the gift of loving Lyla and then letting her go. They will always love Lyla in their hearts, but they held her loosely in their hands, knowing one day she would no longer be in their home, though she will always be in their hearts. This is the excruciating work of love.

So here is how I am coming to cope with the dynamic of loving & loosing that is inherent to ministry. Sometimes as a church we are an adoptive family, and other times we are a foster family. We don’t always know which one we will get to be when someone walks through our doors. But, either way our job is the same: love people. Love people like family. Love people deeply, fully, and without fear. If the possibility of someone leaving tomorrow keeps me from loving them fully today, then fear wins. And scripture says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” 1 Jo. 4:18

Maybe someone will leave because their time with us was only for a reason or a season. I want to be Hulu in these moments of departure. Like Hulu I will cry, I will grieve, I may even wish it were different. And at the exact same time I will remember: this is what we are made to do. We are made to love, and sometimes loving means letting go. And so the door of my heart remains open towards the person who leaves so that they can go where God leads them with my love and blessing. And if they ever need this family again – we are here. We are here. We are always here. We will love you when you come, and we will love you as you go. We will love you when you fall away and flake out, and if you choose to return, we will love you then as well. After all, our job is to love one another as we have been loved by God.

Our weekly benediction says, “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm, may He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you, may He bring you home rejoicing – once again into our doors.”

Hulu and I still regularly exchange photos, and she continues to send Lyla the most amazing gifts. As Lyla’s mom, I am forever grateful that Lyla has so many people all around the world who love her so deeply. So for those of you who have left our flock, and for those of you who may, please know that you will always have a special place in my heart. I’m honored to be one of the pastors in this world who has played a small part in your journey.

Someday, Lyla and I will go visit Hulu again in China….”once again into her doors.”

Susie

Back to School Blessing 2016

This past week, during our worship services, Platt Park Church prayed together in the name of the divine Trinity. In case you missed it, please see the transcript below, and feel welcome to add your own prayers.
God, your love called us into being and joined us together as a faith community. We thank you for our students, parents, teachers, and others connected with education who are beginning a new school year. Shine your light on these people. Grant them strength to carry your blessing from this place of worship to their schools.
For students: We pray for strength for students to take risks. We ask for your Spirit-empowerment for them to explore curiosities and embrace new challenges. We pray that you would give them empathy for other students. Anchor them in your love so that they may have confidence to take risks to connect with others. Help this generation to learn well, think deeply, respect authority, embrace hard problems, and honor the dignity of all people. Bless these students in the year ahead.
For parents: God we lift up the parents of students to you today. Allow them to recognize that all human life is but a breath, and every breath is a gift from your spirt. Grant these parents a deeper level of trust in you this year. Help them to entrust their children more fully into your good and sovereign care. Please give each parent in this room courage and patience. Help them lead when they need to lead. Give them grace to follow the lead of their children as appropriate, too. Give them insight into their children’s curiosity and discernment to follow that curiosity with wisdom and understanding. Help these parents to allow their children’s natural talents and God-given gifts to flourish in full measure, even when our society might not celebrate them. Our God, carry these parents in your love, grace, wisdom and truth this new school year.
For teachers: God, we honor and celebrate teachers. We ask you to give them patience, hope, and courage to do what is right, especially when what is right is hard or unpopular. In the midst of many external pressures, give them insight strength and courage to follow you in being the teacher you have created them to be. Give them an unwavering confidence in you. Give them unconditional positive regard for their students, especially the ones they may not understand or enjoy. Help them to forgive the hurts and to have empathy for every student, parent and colleague in this new year. May these teachers experience your love, grace, courage and strength flowing through them to those they teach. Please lead and guide our teachers in this new year.
For others involved with education: God, may every person connected to a school community play their part in strengthening these future members of society. Please protect them from discouragement and surround them with your songs of love.
In conclusion: Our God, please open all of our eyes to ways we might participate in supporting the next generation. We lament that our schools are not always equitable or safe environments for learning. We pray for your protection and justice to permeate our school communities this new year. Help us to extend your shalom in schools. We pray all this in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Bloodlines!

One of the things I’ve struggled with since adopting Lyla is a guilty-mom feeling that says, “Susie, you are not Chinese, and a Chinese mom would be a better mom than you.” I know many of you are ready to say either, “Yes, that’s why I don’t believe in international adoption,” -or- “Oh, Susie, that is ridiculous, you’re a great mom!” But this is a real struggle for me. I know there are infinite perspectives on adoption, and international adoption in particular, but we are past that now, and Lyla is ours. I love her with all my heart and cannot imagine loving her anymore. Over this past year, I’ve been working through my bouts of shame and self-doubt in light of God’s faithfulness and the truth of His timeless word to us in the ancient scriptures. Just recently my friend pointed me in a direction that has helped tremendously. Here was the gist of our conversation:
Once we are in Christ, everything about our bloodline becomes second to who we are in Christ. That is not to say our ethnicity, race, and background are unimportant – they have a lot to do with who we are and how God may want to work through us. However, once we are in Christ, the blood of Jesus becomes the most important thing about us.  Our adoption into the family of God, our wealth in Christ, our citizenship in heaven are now more important than our standing or membership in any other cultural or political system. We are citizens of heaven!
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  -Galatians 3:26-28
This insight is moving me into a stronger conviction that inter-racial relationships are not just allowed by God but they provide an especially unique and important witness to the gospel of Christ: in Christ, we are new creations. In Christ, we are citizens of heaven (Phil 1), living as exiles here on earth (James 1 & 1 Peter 1); this is not our ultimate home. In Christ, we have been transferred from the “kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his dear son” (Col 1). This means we cross every barrier – social, cultural, ethnic, and class -freely in Jesus, extending friendship, forgiveness, and love to each other because Christ has done this for us. We do so with gentleness and respect, getting out of the safe, homogeneous, comfortable same-ness of those who are like us and follow God’s leading in our lives. Very often, Jesus leads us into new, unfamiliar, and different places and relationships. We never lose our culture or disregard others’, but in Christ, everything is transformed, and we share a bond of unity that is more powerful than our differences.

Lyla, GuGu, & Me

Lyla, our newly adopted 2 year-old, affectionately calls her 4 year-old brother Russell “GuGu,” which means “big brother” in Mandarin. She adores him, looks up to him, follows him around and takes her cues from her GuGu. Lyla has gone through a huge adjustment, leaving her home country for a new country with a family that speaks a new language and looks different from the faces she had grown accustomed to seeing. One of the ways she has coped with this change is to attach to Russell. Russell also has gone through a huge adjustment, from being the only kid in the house to immediately having a 2 year-old sister with whom he does not always want to share his toys, his time, or his parents. He is often tender and sweet towards Lyla, combing her hair and feeding her yogurt, but sometimes he reveals just how difficult this change has been for him. Today, Russell not-so-affectionately (but hilariously) said to Lyla, with great passion, “I am not being your sister anymore!” (yes, he said sister rather than brother 🙂 )
Transitions shape us. Sometimes transitions come to us abruptly or violently, and other times we choose them joyfully, but they usually bring challenges. We will either become bitter or better through them. We will either find a way to embrace the change, or we will find ourselves resisting it and possibly arguing about it at every turn. Through changing seasons of life, our hope is to become more like Christ Jesus, who, during his greatest transition, did not resist but “being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but rather made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, and being found in human likeness, humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on the cross.” Jesus modeled extraordinary peacefulness and non-anxiety as he allowed transitions to shape him.
After seminary Tim and I moved to Iowa for Tim’s job. Initially, I was eager for that transition and chose it, but once we arrived, I did not embrace the changes easily. In my heart I fought the changes that came my way through that move, the small town, the church culture, and the new life. It was only through a combination of counseling+coaching+spiritual direction+time that I found my way through that season.
In hindsight, I wish I could have done some things differently; I regret my resistant attitude. Yet, as hard as that experience was, I wouldn’t remove it from my journey because in the end it shaped me in so many positive ways. I am grateful for the incredible guides I had along the way, who compassionately listened, provided space, challenged me, and guided me through the valleys and mountain peaks of that challenging terrain.
Now, when I see others in transition – like Lyla and Russell – I remember the part these seasons play in our development, and I thank God for them.

Playing with God…all the time

“Russell, what do you think about God?” I recently asked my almost 4-year old son. He replied, “I like to play with God all the time.”
Oh, from the mouths of children!
It’s moments like these when my children become my teachers. Because, whether Russell intended to say this or not, I heard him saying that he sees God as significant in everything he does throughout every day. So often I tend to think of my life in fragments, little parts of a puzzle that make up a whole. I have my ministry job, my business job, my parenting job…
But what if God wants to be the common link between all of these parts, the integral essence of every activity of my life? What if everything I do – whether preparing a sermon, or registering someone for a Sipping n’ Painting class, or changing my kids’ diapers – became not only an offering for God’s glory but also a partnership between God and me, almost like a play project together?
What if I did all of these things with Him – not just for him – but with Him? What if I were never by myself trying to read (or write) an inspirational book? If I understood God to be with me in that process, might I feel less afraid and more attuned? What if I were never alone facing a bad Yelp review from a guest’s experience at my business? Might I be able to see myself and my work through God’s eyes and be freed from shame to instead embrace fresh creativity and adventure? What if I never saw myself as abandoned with my tired and cranky kids? Would I possibly have better access to patience, strength, and humor? What if God always intended for these kinds of daily realities to be play dates together-between Jesus and me?
How could you and I live differently by taking the apostle Paul’s words to heart when he said, “Whether therefore you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31)?
What might the impact on our world be if we, like Russell, viewed God as someone we like to play with all the time-in every dimension of life?

Adopting Lyla: Part 4

Adoption Day is the day that adoptive parents meet their child for the first time.

I have been told to expect all sorts of emotions on the day that our family and Lyla meet face-to-face. For parents, this day is the realization of a whole lot of wishes, hopes, dreams, and prayers, not to mention an insane amount of paperwork! For the child being adopted, it may also be a day of culminated joy, but there is often an element of loss, too, as the child is separated from whatever semblance of home has been fostered in the orphanage or foster home. For siblings already in the home, “Gotcha Day” can be complex, with some excitement and some perception of threat. The whole family is oriented around the task of bonding, which is a vulnerable undertaking in any circumstance, but perhaps especially in this context where each person longs so deeply to love and be loved. “Gotcha Day” is the beginning of something new and inconceivable, no matter how often we have dreamed of it.

I am waiting and wondering and dreaming of what our adoption day will be like. I wonder what it will feel like for Tim, Russell, and me, and I wonder what it will feel like for Lyla. We would be so grateful for your prayers as we approach this important day. Here are some of our hearts’ longings:

  • Tim and I will travel to China sometime end of May/early June. Prayer for us and Russell as he stays home with Grandma, Grandpa & Gabby as we travel to China to get Lyla. I’m already sad about leaving Russell for those 10 days and I’m nostalgic about our time with “just Russell” winding down.
  • We hope to make our world very small for a while when Lyla first arrives, in order to focus on bonding & attaching with our new little girl.
  • Praying for Russell’s adjustment…Mommy’s adjustment….Tim’s adjustment…Gabby’s adjustment….and a whole lot of patience, acceptance and openness to the big change coming our way.
  • Solid sleeping routines for everyone upon Lyla’s arrival!
  • Praying for Lyla’s little heart as she goes through one more significant change in her life. Praying that as she forms her self-identity that she can be rooted deeply in the Lord and his deep abiding love for her.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.”– Romans 8:14-17

Adopting Lyla: Part 3

We were sitting in a required parent training for adoption a couple years ago now, when the facilitator started explaining that there is a “primal wound” that develops when a birth mother and a child are separated shortly after childbirth. She was teaching from a well known resource published in 1993 by Nancy Verrier called “The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child.”  The primary focus of both the book and the class was the effects of adoption on the adopted. The big idea was that all adoptees, even those adopted at birth, experience a break in bond that is a deep emotional wound. And that a loving set of adoptive parents can help to heal the wounds.

I remember there was a woman in our class who listened to all the unique challenges of bonding and attaching inherent in adoption and then she finally blurted out, “This is so depressing! I’m not even sure I want to adopt anymore!”

Tim and I listened, learned, were sobered by the realizations but didn’t feel any less drawn to adopt. For us it felt empowering to know the information. It felt honest to acknowledge and embrace the research. Just like there is a nostalgia to romance, there can be a nostalgia to adoption. Nostalgia plays a role in initially drawing us, inspiring us towards a beautiful vision of what could be. But nostalgia is a limited view. It’s only a small part of the true story. Real love – the tough, weathered, true kind – doesn’t remain in nostalgia-land forever. Authentic love is sometimes boring, sometimes brutal, sometimes messy and scary and roll-up-your-sleeves, push-on, one-foot forward, hard+hard+hard work. Nostalgia comes and goes. Sustaining love on the other hand, embraces the truth, lives informed and rides the seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall.

I want to be the kind of person who moves beyond nostalgia to give and receive sustaining love.  I want to offer this kind of love to my people; to my kids, to Tim and to our home team. I want more than pseudo-community that is all about conflict-avoidance.  I want the real deal. I want to foster true, authentic community that is only born when we risk vulnerability and are willing to enter the tunnel of chaos to find one another as we truly are on the other side.

Embracing “the primal wound” of adoption is just a picture to me of embracing people for who they really are (and not who I want to make them be) and not minimizing the pain of our unique human experiences – whatever they may be.  This takes humility and vulnerability and patience and time – and it is relevant in all my relationships. Because we all have different pains & wounds, and we all have the chance to offer one another healing too.