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.”


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.

Adopting Lyla: Part 5 – You Are Chosen

When we said “yes” to adopting Lyla, her caregiver posted this photo on Facebook with the words, “I am chosen.”

I couldn’t help but think of how Jesus says, “I have chosen you,” and how often I take that as a pressuring message. You’re chosen, blessed, redeemed – so get busy serving meals and hosting groups and working hard in the church.  Your duty as a chosen one is to be responsible and pay back the gift you’ve been given in being chosen.

Then I think about Lyla. I think about how my mama-heart jumped for joy when I saw this picture of her sweet little face next to the words “I am chosen.” I wanted to reach through the computer screen and say, “Yes, you are chosen, sweet baby girl,” and hold her in my arms.

I want Lyla to know that as her imperfect mom I care infinitely more about her BEING than her DOING. I hope for her to BE brave, to BE free, to BE true, to BE God- honoring, and whatever she does out of that center is just by-product.

It doesn’t matter to me if she does anything great in the world’s eyes. Maybe God sees us the same way.

Imagine a photograph of yourself right here. God looks at your face and is overwhelmed with delight. You are chosen…

But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.

Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you.

Isaiah 43:1-4

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.

Adopting Lyla: Part 2

The fact that a child born to another woman is about to call me “Mom” is a tragedy and a privilege – neither of which is lost on me. My friend Jodi said that.

Adoption is born out of total tragedy. Adoption is not the way life is supposed to be. It’s an unimaginable heartache of the most courageous kind for a woman to have to give up her child. There are countless possible reasons why she must – but it’s still a tragedy for her and for the baby who began bonding in utero with her mom’s voice, smell, and beat of her heart. Adoption begins with the breaking of a bond that wasn’t meant to be broken. If we can’t acknowledge this, then we minimize the pain for both birth mom and baby, no matter how beautiful the story that follows may be.

I hope and trust that our family’s story with Lyla will indeed be a beautiful one.

The fact that a child born to another woman is about to call me “Mom” is a privilege of the most sacred kind. It is the way life is supposed to be that those with love to share give it away, and that those that are called to adopt give that love to a child in need of a home. Every child should have a family in which to belong, where s/he can be seen, loved and nurtured. Our family is grateful, humbled, and overjoyed to be in a position to offer our love and our home to Lyla.

Lyla was born to another woman but will soon call me “Mom.” The magnitude of that tragedy and the depth of that privilege are not lost on me.

To be continued…

Adopting Lyla: Part 1

The dream of adopting a child has been in my heart for as long as I can remember.   In 2nd grade I was obsessed with the movie Annie. At my Annie-themed birthday party that summer, I received an Annie album, an Annie necklace, and an Annie towel. The story of orphan Annie finding a home had captured me – and everyone knew it. “Why adoption?” some people ask. I guess I just can’t think of anything more beautiful in which to invest the life and resources God has given our family.

When Tim and I first met in college, China had just opened up to Westerners, and we were moved by the history, culture and amazing people of China. Tim moved to Beijing for 2 years after college, serving with a campus ministry and teaching English. We were dating long distance at the time, so I went to China to visit Tim. We have so many memories of that trip, including walking along the Great Wall of China, visiting Tiananmen Square, eating super spicy noodles in a dingy underground restaurant and a walk in Purple Bamboo Park when Tim brought up marriage. I said, “I’m really not ready for this conversation yet.” Geez, what was I thinking?!

When we got married, we both agreed that starting a family “someday” was a desire of our hearts. We decided we would try, “down the road,” to have 1 child biologically if possible and we’d try to adopt 1 child from China if possible.

Before our now 3½ year old son Russell was even born, we had begun pursuing adoption through CCAI (Chinese Children Adoption International.)  We filled out the application and attended the 24 hours of required parenting courses. Then we sort of stalled out in completing all the paperwork. Part of our stalling out was just neither of us being good at details, but I also think our hearts were catching up with all the realities of adoption. Eventually our agency said we either needed to move forward or close down our file.

With a lot of help and prayer, we finished the paperwork in the fall of 2014 and finally “matched” with our soon-to-be daughter Lyla on January 8, 2015.

We now wait for her to come home! We are filled with awe, wonder, anticipation, and a whole new set of hopes & fears as we await “Adoption Day,” which is a phrase marking the anniversary of when an adopted family finally gets to hold their child in their arms.

To be continued…

Adoption Update

When our son Russell was still only an unnamed hope in our hearts, Tim and I felt drawn to adoption. It is estimated that 153 million children worldwide are orphans. That need, combined with our sense of God’s calling and our own desire to build a family, led us down a winding road whose destination we still don’t see clearly. We began the journey more than 5 years ago by attending various local and international adoption agency informational meetings. We eventually chose Chinese Children Adoption International as the route that felt most consistent with our hearts and God’s leading. We struggled through some of the potential “ugh” realities of adopting, including the possible lack of knowledge on family medical history, the unique attachment journey some adopted kids and parents enter, the unknowns, and the long waiting periods. We sat through 24 hours of required parenting courses. We began saving our money for the associated costs of adoption. And we waited…

Last week, after a long silence, our dossier (the extensive paperwork associated with adopting) was finally filed in China.  We received the first “file” of a little girl for our consideration in adopting!

Please pray for us. We are seeking to discern if this sweet little girl is a “match” for our family and us for her. The thrill of hope inside of us around this possibility is indescribable!

My friend Jodi Landers has adopted 2 children from Sierra Leone, and she has wisely said, “A child born to another woman calls me mom. The magnitude of that tragedy and the depth of that privilege is not lost on me.”

Thank you for your prayers as we seek to hear God’s voice in this process!