push, pull: three years of bonding with Kami Joy

I want you to know that this is how it can feel to adopt. It’s not natural, it’s supernatural. The only reason she is here is because God reached out His mighty arm to save her and make her a new creation. He chose our family to carry out this plan, and I must believe it’s because He’s given us the tools to do the job.

As we near Kami Joy’s third “rebirthday” this July, I’m thinking back over the past three years and rereading my old blog entries chronicling our intense adoption journey. Want to join me for the ride? 🙂


August 2014, Sofia, Bulgaria

Mason is putting Kami to bed and I am taking the advice of a kind fellow adoptive mom who told me some wise things today. She said that even if I feel like I’m taking care of the neighbor’s kid, just make sure to take good care of that neighbor’s kid. Kamelia has been with us for one week tomorrow, and yes, she usually feels like a neighbor’s kid and not our own just yet, but the love will grow. It has plenty of time to grow, and until then I can make the choice to love her through my actions while waiting for the feelings to catch up. What motivates me even more than the neighbor’s kid analogy is letting myself acknowledge that we just took in an orphan. Technically she is not an orphan anymore, praise God, but I don’t quite feel like her parent yet, which leaves us in an interesting place. It’s complicated and, as I’ve transparently shared, messy. Three more full days, and then we’re heading home. We continue to pray that the visa process will be fast and timely so that we can all fly home together. There is a possibility she will scream and need to be physically restrained for the whole flight, but I hope she doesn’t. Either way, we just need to get out of here and get home!

Kami’s favorite new word combination is “push, pull.” It describes exactly how I’ve felt this week! Encouragement, despair. Hope, fear. Rest, anxiety. The war has been unceasing! I don’t know how much of this is normal adoption emotion, how much is the intense sadness I feel at not holding my precious one-year-old and squeezing his brother and sister, and how much is actual spiritual warfare. But I do know that the enemy has capitalized on my confusion and emotional instability. In retrospect, I can’t believe we are doing this. The only explanation is God. And He is the one who grounds me at the end of the day, helping me reorient my heart to hear His voice and drown out the lies. Lord, please help us raise up Kamelia in the way she should go, restore her to the state she would have been had she never been neglected, and create beautiful relationships between her and every member of our family!

Despite appearances, I had never been so unhappy in all my life!!!

 

 


 September 2014, Montgomery, Alabama

The Lord is changing my heart towards Kami. It may seem strange to some that a child who is chosen, prayed for, and sought after for months and months through the exciting process of international adoption would not be easily accepted into their new family. It hasn’t been an easy or even smooth transition so far. The hurt contained in this little person exceeded our imaginations, and her hurt has in turn hurt those of us who are suddenly sharing our home with her. We knew this would happen, but we had no way of knowing how traumatic it would be. It is difficult to love a person – even a small, deprived person who has known only a pitiful existence – when they are hurting you. Weeks ago God showed me the verse Jesus spoke about doing good to those who curse you and praying for your enemies. Kami has never been our enemy, as we’ve always been fighting for her, but it’s sure felt like fighting against her at many times. The point is that God IS changing my heart towards her.

Kami, age 7, next to 1-year-old Isaiah in the little apartment in Montgomery where we fought every day just to not give up the fight. Her hair was short from her last orphanage cut and she was wearing size 4T clothing. She could not dress herself, chew her food, speak, or use the toilet. The messes we saw in the morning sometimes were unspeakable. As you can see looking at her right foot, she could barely process the feeling of being barefoot on carpet. She was essentially nonverbal except for unintelligible babbling and spent her days screaming, thrashing, scratching, lunging, and pushing, and was paralyzed by sensory dysfunction. For days in a row she would not eat or drink. This feels like looking through a window into another lifetime for me.
 October 2014, Shreveport, Louisiana
Attachment between us and Kami is coming slowly. Right now I would describe it as if we’d been through a traumatic car accident together. Simply surviving has bonded us together – when you’ve been through so much with someone, things that outsiders could never fully understand, you begin to feel connected simply by virtue of sharing the experience. (This applies to our marriage, too!) I do think she is beautiful. Sometimes I think she is cute. I believe she has limitless potential. I see her progressing emotionally and behaviorally. Sunday we spent about 7 minutes in Krispy Kreme, the entire family. She sat and ate a donut without making a scene. I honestly didn’t know if we’d ever be able to take her out in public, but we did. She’s had a couple of playground trips now without tantrums. Sometimes she whines, but so does Eden, so I won’t hold whining against her. She is VERY stubborn. This stubbornness helped her parent herself for 7 years, but the majority of it has no place in our home. Attachment with a cooing baby, adorable toddler, or even an emotionally stable older child from quality foster care can come naturally, but attachment to a stubborn, previously undisciplined 7-year-old does not, my friends!
Moms, you know how when you look at your baby, you can almost feel your brain being flooded by intense bonding hormones? I felt and still do feel that with our other three kids. Sometimes an experience with Kami, even a tender and positive one, will trigger an outpouring of adrenaline from my very confused and traumatized glands. It’s almost as if my body is rebelling against this unnatural connection, screaming “you didn’t deliver this baby, she’s not a baby, what are you doing loving on her as if she were yours?!?!” I am all about sharing truth and I want you to know that this is how it can feel to adopt. It’s not natural, it’s supernatural. The only reason she is here is because God reached out His mighty arm to save her and make her a new creation. He chose our family to carry out this plan, and I must believe it’s because He’s given us the tools to do the job. It sounds strange, but even when it feels like we’re the worst fit for her, I know that there isn’t another family better equipped for this child.

January 2015, Shreveport, Louisiana

Recently we went to Chick-fil-a for dinner as a family. It was blissfully uneventful. Mason and I sat on a bench together while Ezekiel, Kami and Eden squished onto the one opposite us, and Isaiah happily people-watched from a highchair. It was so…normal. Easy. Enjoyable. Why did I not believe this day would come? Why did I think my life was over and that the rest of my pitiful days would be lived out in frantic mother-of-four isolation? There are a few possible answers to those questions, among them being post-adoption depression and profound psychological adjustment. The healing I am seeing unfold before my eyes is exactly what God promised us before we started this journey. It’s just that the path has been so painful and difficult in places that at times I had convinced myself that we were on the wrong one.

Living together for six months can bond you to someone. It was very awkward parenting a complete stranger, and it was really, really hard to start out a parenting journey with fight-or-flight surges rather than warm, nurturing feelings. As a new adoptive mom to a child from a very hard place, I’ve moved through stages of compassion, frustration, fear, anger, acceptance and hope (sometimes all in one day) in my relation to her. I’ve been trying to keep in mind the helpful advice to put feelings in the backseat, and it helped me justify my lack of them, but praise God – the feelings train is finally starting to catch up. I know I’m using the word feeling alot because it feels good to finally have some feelings to support this new relationship, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter if I feel like loving as Christ loves. I’m called to do it anyway.

I am the closest relationship Kami has ever experienced in her life. It’s obvious that the five of us, Mason, me, and our other three, are closer to her now than anyone else has ever been, but I say I am her closest because I am her most consistent caretaker. I oversee almost all her daily activities, feed her almost every meal, and am training and bonding with her during the workday while Mason is gone. Because of this, she tries to push me away in subtle ways to see how I will react. I’m sure she wants to test the boundaries to see if I will stick around.

I left the book of Jude open on the kitchen counter this week. It reminded me every time I walked by that I no longer live according to natural instinct because God’s Spirit lives in me (Jude 19). There is absolutely no room for my instinctive response, but only for the response of careful training and instruction that is my responsibility as her mother. In the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)


June 2015, Shreveport, Louisiana

From what I understand, the months of intense trauma and stress in our home caused me to have unusually (dare I say dangerously) high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Due to Kami’s tragic past, she came into our family with skyrocketed stress hormone levels, and as hers gradually went down, mine went up. This is what I meant all of the times when people asked me how things were going and all I could think of to respond with was “it has been costly.” That was an uncomfortable exchange of trauma that happened. But I can now say I am grateful for the chance to take on her stress,  even to suffer under it for a little while, when I remember that the Lord Jesus did that with my sin. He took it on and suffered under it in order to defeat it. That’s exactly what is happening in this home by His grace.


November 2015, Kissimmee, Florida

Here is Kami, age 8, at church this morning. She speaks in full sentences, and when I remember her at this time last year, it doesn’t matter anymore that the words in the sentences are arranged strangely. She dresses herself, in size 8-10 clothing, uses the toilet like a pro, and has very few remaining sensory issues. She knows how to play, jump, climb, slide, obey, and communicate. As I write she’s standing next to me looking at the pictures and talking about what I’m doing. It feels this month like we are finally emerging from the woods enough for some real bonding to take place. I took her to visit a special needs school last week, and I walked out feeling unsure if I even want to put her in school anymore. She is doing so well at home and, even on the hard days, she is growing and learning by leaps and bounds. We still have our share of challenges, but today I’m just celebrating the power of God’s Word in changing her life. Because it’s God’s Word that told us to care for orphans, and it’s God’s Word that enabled us to go where He sent us to bring an orphaned child into our family, and it’s God’s Word that enables us today to train her up up in the way she should go, no matter how many years were lost to abandonment.


August 2016, Kissimmee, Florida

It’s taken two years for me to feel mostly like my old self again. My old self could often laugh at the days to come, like the Proverbs 31 woman, and generally woke up peaceful and eager to do my tasks of child-raising each day. I am so grateful that God in His mercy has restored me, because for many months following our adoption of Kami, waking up was painful. Every morning my eyes would fly open to the sounds of her screaming, banging, thrashing, howling, or babbling. In an instinctive effort to preserve the home environment for my first three little ones, I would fly out of bed, adrenaline pumping, to silence the outburst. My stomach would be churning and my heart pounding, from what felt like the moment I awoke to the moment I fell asleep at night. For what seemed like a very long time, fighting for this child’s life felt like fighting against her. 


Today, June 16, 2017

I’m starting to feel like I love her, and I’m starting to feel like she’s mine.

 

Christen

10 positive things about dietary restrictions

Here are ten encouragements for you if you’re dealing with a suddenly restricted diet.

Here’s a positive spin on something that’s generally viewed as a major bummer: dietary restrictions! I remember saying as a teenager, “I could never give up wheat,” “I definitely couldn’t live without cheese,” etc… Well, I’ve learned by now to stop saying I could never do something. Many of those things, I’ve ended up doing!

Here are ten encouragements for you if you’re dealing with a suddenly restricted diet. Take heart; it could become a big blessing in your life!

  1. Most of the grocery store is off limits, so you save both money and time when you shop. You learn to zero in on the small sections that carry your safe items. If you’re gluten and dairy free, brands like Bob’s Red Mill and Enjoy Life (affiliate links included) exert a magnetic force on you!


2) You are forced to actually think about everything that you put in your mouth. This is a healthy practice we should all do to care for our bodies, but many of us don’t take the time to read labels and make informed decisions unless we develop an allergy or intolerance.

3) The temptation to pig out in social settings is gone, leading to…

4) You emphasize relationships with people rather than food! When I go to a restaurant to meet a friend, chances are I will just order a glass of water and maybe a small fruit or vegetable side dish. (This also saves money!)

5) Fewer choices make for a simpler lifestyle. An unlimited array of choices at the grocery store or restaurant can be overwhelming.

6) The physical discipline of controlling what you put in your mouth can be translated into a spiritual discipline. When I had to become strict about making sure no gluten (and later dairy) was in my food, I realized that I should be just as strict about what I say and what I watch. Practicing vigilance in one area helps develop it in other areas.

7) Midnight snacks feel good. I can stand in the dark kitchen, after everyone else has gone to bed, eating carrots and hummus until I am fully satisfied. I don’t feel sick or guilty afterward!

8) Your stomach gets the message that it’s full. Back when I could tolerate gluten and dairy, I had a greater tendency to overeat because I didn’t feel as satisfied after eating.

9) You’re more grateful for your food! If someone goes to the trouble to make me a GF/DF treat (which my mom does all the time), I enjoy every last bite of it. As long as it’s safe, I’m not picky.

10) You can be sure that when you pray “Give us today our daily bread” like Jesus said to do, He knows exactly what kind of bread you’re talking about! In my case, any of these choices below will do. 🙂

In everything give thanks!

Christen

Perspectives on the World Christian Movement

Social justice is not a topic that can be avoided in light of Scripture, and last week the Perspectives team did a great job of bringing it to the surface for students to actively consider what work God has for them in this area.

If you know me well, you’ve heard me talk about Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. I think everyone who can should check it out. I’m taking the course for the second time. Last time I took it, we lived in Louisiana and our three little ones were all under age four. Now our youngest is four, and we’ve added another child to the crew through international adoption. I haven’t been doing the weekly reading or homework this time since I already earned my course certificate, but simply attending the lectures and participating in a small group has been a dynamic experience. Though the class has students of all ages, I sit at a table with high school and college students. It’s hard to believe I’m almost twice their age now! I think I need to start hanging out with more teenagers like them, because they inspire me on a weekly basis. 🙂

This week the Perspectives team tackled social justice and the gospel. As followers of Christ, how do we serve a world reflected by these statistics?

50% of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

1 in 6 people lacks adequate shelter.

1 in 4 live without electricity.

1 in 9 people suffer from chronic undernourishment.

Malnourishment accounts for 45% of all child deaths.

1 in 7 people lacks access to safe water.

80% of illnesses are linked to poor water in the developing world.

2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation.

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Nobody enjoys having statistics thrown at them, but these reflect the state of the world, where Christ came to reconcile all things (Colossians 1:20).

“We can expect that God will enable His people to wage war with disease, to break the vicious cycles of poverty, to provide water in desert lands, and to be present with healing in the midst of catastrophe.” – Perspectives Reader, page 39

A rep from International Justice Mission shared in class about their global casework, including sex trafficking, forced labor slavery, sexual violence against children, and property grabbing. The whole concept of Scriptural justice (Amos 5:24) was addressed.

A discussion about abuse of the most vulnerable, including orphans, got me thinking about our own Kami Joy. She represents some of the “loaves and fishes” we’ve brought to Jesus, trusting that He would do something miraculous with them. She’s one single person – we didn’t fix the corruption of the orphanage system that kept her drugged and neglected, and we didn’t offer any long-term solutions for the children left behind. But God didn’t call us to fix the system by ourselves. He’s called us to bring Him what we have, which for us was an empty chair at our table.

Photos: Kami in Bulgaria, December 2013, and with us (wearing the scarf) April 2017

God’s people must be willing to go into darkness to rescue others. The last Perspectives instructor pointed out that some of the most vulnerable people in America are those in the foster system. They have no one to defend them, making them easy prey for traffickers who are looking to exploit weak ones. There’s a big movement of young families stepping up to become foster parents, making sacrifices (including the peace of their homes) in order to stand up for the fatherless. Mason and I have considered adopting a child from the foster system, and I know the Lord will show us when the time is right. Social justice is not a topic that can be avoided in light of Scripture, and last week the Perspectives team did a great job of bringing it to the surface for students to actively consider what work God has for them in this area.

This is one small taste of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. I hope you look for a class in your area. Only one week is dedicated to the social justice issue; other topics include His Kingdom Come, Unleashing the Gospel, and Building Bridges of Love. By the end of the 15 weeks, you’ll be ruined for the ordinary. And that’s a good thing, a very good thing.

 

saying yes to God’s best: the things I didn’t even know I wanted

I’m learning to be grateful for all His gifts, even the ones I didn’t ask for.

It all started with a piano. Loresa, a friend of Mason’s mom, asked one day if we would like a free piano. When she relayed the offer, my first inclination was no, thank you. I figured our open floor plan, which has our kitchen, dining room, living room, and school room all together, seemed full enough; and besides, I hadn’t played piano for years. Mason and I talked it over and felt a tug to accept the kind gift. It was delivered a couple of months ago to a cozy spot next to the dining room table.

piano

This piano has been therapy to my soul. I never would have guessed that I wanted one! I had no idea how good it would be for me, and how fun it would be to pull out all my old music books and remember how to play songs full of pleasant memories. Eden was the first to try to teach herself to play (that lasted all of about 2 weeks), Ezekiel compiles a lineup of special songs (all in minor keys, of course) for me to play him each day, Isaiah snuggles up next to me with his chubby little arm around me says “I love you, Momma!” when I play, and Kami has learned to process and enjoy a new kind of sound in the house. This piano, at first a seemingly random offer to be passed over, has become a sweet gift to every member of the family – even Mason, who’s not the keenest on musical appreciation. (Thanks, Loresa!)

This got me thinking about some other gifts I’ve been hesitant to receive. I heard on the radio the other day the idea that God’s will is everything we want, if we knew all the facts. Of course, we don’t know all the facts, but sometimes we get far enough down the road to see glimmers of them in this life.

One gift I didn’t know I wanted at the time was our third baby. Isaiah is a kind, cuddly, smart, empathetic member of the family, and he’s got a glue-like quality that pulls everybody together. He totally disrupted our plans to adopt from South America in 2012, and we were pretty upset that our grand orphan care mission was derailed by an unforeseen pregnancy. We were foolish and shortsighted, and Isaiah is the best surprise we have ever received! it just takes one look at him every day for God to remind me to trust Him and be patient – it can take 9 months or more to see His purposes unfold. 🙂
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Sometimes we wrestle with the gifts He drops into our laps, particularly when they take us on rollercoaster rides. This has been the case with Kami Joy. I was encouraged to hear one international adoptive mom share with me recently that it took her close to 10 years to feel love for her child. (If you haven’t adopted a traumatized older child, that might sound heartless. It’s quite the opposite. Like so many other things in life, it’s hard to understand unless you’ve lived it.) We do have many moments and days now where we feel warm feelings toward her, but we still have days where we simply choose to love her through our actions in the absence of feelings. She’s a gift that God has used to humble, soften, refine, and bless us.

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Here’s another gift I never would have asked for: a cancer diagnosis. It was like something from a movie, finding myself in a doctor’s office with my spouse where I was told very seriously that I had cancer. This happened to me last month. I think the whole thing was a bit over-dramatized on the medical side, but God’s not intimidated by that. He taught me so much through the six-letter word that I was afraid of. I was pretty upset at first and spent a few days crying and resigning myself to all sorts of horrible treatments. Then we prayed, educated ourselves, calmed down, asked friends to pray, and prayed some more. We watched portions of The Truth About Cancer, I scoured the internet looking for home remedies, we spoke with trusted friends, and we used unconventional things like black seed oil, eggplant extract, baking soda, Essiac tea, and of course, our doTERRA essential oils. During the time between my biopsy and my visit to the oncologist, the growth had almost disappeared. The oncologist needed help finding it, yet flippantly dismissed the notion that natural treatments could have helped. 😉  It is completely gone, with only a small scar showing where it was! The Lord led some of our friends to pray specifically for clear guidance on whether or not we should proceed with surgery. He gave it, and we aren’t planning on surgery right now.

God healed that small tumor. He is so awesome. If I could guess, I think one reason He gave me this gift was to demolish a huge fear stronghold in my life. I have been afraid dozens of times in my life that I might have cancer. (I’m not a hypochondriac, but I have leanings in that direction.) During both of my visits to the doctor, I felt God’s overwhelming presence with me. It was so amazing to be in a situation that I had feared for my entire life, yet to be overcome with peace that only comes through a personal relationship with Jesus. He was right there with me the whole time, and I was reminded that my times are in His hands (Psalm 31:15).

Another fun aspect of this whole experience was seeing Mason, my eternally calm husband, receive with me the doctor’s news that the biopsy had come back cancerous. Not surprisingly, he remained unruffled. He might drive people nuts with his bluntness and expressionless-ness at times, but his coolness under pressure is a great trait. This also makes us a good team, since I tend to spazz out on both ends of the emotional spectrum.

Another thing we may not have known we wanted was the call to leave Mason’s last career when it didn’t satisfy our souls. (We have many wonderful friends continuing to serve in that career in obedience to God, and they are right where they need to be, and we are so grateful for their service!) God has a specific purpose for each of our lives, and because He showed us what it was for us and equipped us to follow, we are now experiencing the deepest soul satisfaction of our lives. It’s been a season of sweetness where I’m often overcome by God’s crazy goodness to guide us so closely and be so active in our daily lives. The days fly by, they get intense, and I mess up; but sometimes I have a hard time calming down enough to sleep at night because I’m so excited! Jesus says in Matthew 17:20,  “if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” Imagine the possibilities!

Who can list the glorious miracles of the LORD? Who can ever praise him half enough? Psalm 106:2

I’m learning to be grateful for all His gifts, even the ones I didn’t ask for.

Christen

***I want to include some encouragement for anyone who’s struggling with their health and feeling like there is no hope outside of conventional medicine. While there is definitely a time and place for conventional medicine, there is also a lot you can do at home using God’s creation under His guidance. For anyone who might be interested, here are the affiliate links for a few of the products I used. No, I am not diagnosing or treating anyone else’s illnesses by sharing about these products. 🙂

Starwest Botanicals Organic Essiac Tea, 1 Pound

Sweet Sunnah Black Seed Oil Cold Pressed (First Pressing) 8 oz..Non GMO Unrefined & Unfiltered,No Preservatives & Artificial Color – Glass Bottle – Product of USA.

BLACK RASPBERRY SEED OIL. 100% Pure / Natural / Undiluted / Virgin / Unrefined / Cold Pressed Carrier oil. 0.5 Fl.oz.- 15 ml. For Skin, Hair, Lip and Nail Care. “One of the highest antioxidants, rich in vitamin A and E, Omega 3, 6 and 9 Essential Fatty Acids”. by Botanical Beauty (I applied topically to tumor site)

Piping Rock Eggplant Extract 6000 mg 30 Quick Release Capsules Herbal Supplement (I mixed the powdered extract with essential oils and applied topically since I had trouble finding a good eggplant at our grocery store)

Many blessings as you prayerfully pursue good health!***

 

a milestone of mercy

One day last March I wrote in my prayer journal about a few things that were on my mind. Writing is one way I really enjoy talking with God and processing life. I ended the entry by asking God to do something crazy tomorrow to show His power in our family. What happened the next day was one of the craziest moments of my life.

March is already a special time of year because my super special husband was born in this month, but one year ago today came an incredible encouragement that still thrills me whenever I think about it. As a milestone of God’s goodness on this particular day last year, I want to share it with you today!

March 21, 2016

We’ve lived in this lovely house for over one year now. When we first moved in and tried to settle our things inside, it felt strange, small (by comparison with our last house), and foreign. I’ve moved enough in my life, a large handful of times as an Air Force kid and another handful of times as an Air Force wife, to expect this by now. It takes me a good year to feel at home in my new environment. It takes that long for each room to soak up enough memories to become familiar. The hardest time for me can be 6-8 months after moving in, when I’m no longer brand new, but also not feeling established in the new surroundings yet. Especially with the huge life change we made in leaving the military, it was easy for me to miss our old home and wonder if we’d made the right decision. One day in March I wrote in my prayer journal about a few things that were on my mind. Writing is one way I really enjoy talking with God and processing life. I ended the entry by asking God to do something crazy tomorrow to show His power in our family. What happened the next day was one of the craziest moments of my life.

The day after I made this request of God in prayer, we had a visitor. We’re renting, and our landlord had from time to time sent out a kind, helpful emissary named George. He’d been by to feed the grass before, and on this March day he was here to cut down two small trees in the backyard and replace them with a palm tree. Though we’d never met our landlord, he had been absolutely wonderful to us from day one, going above and beyond in taking care of our family. He even paid to install a solid backyard fence for the kids shortly after we moved in – a huge and unexpected blessing.

On this day, we watched through the sliding glass door as George cut down the trees. He worked diligently, carrying the branches around the side of the house to the curb. He worked with an unassuming air, but the shiny black Cadillac in the driveway told us this wasn’t his day job. He was obviously a friend of the landlord, doing him a favor by taking care of his house. At my urging, Mason popped his head out back with an offer to help, but George politely declined. His task was nearing completion and I just couldn’t let him leave without thanking him properly for all of his hard work. I ran outside and met him in the front yard, his arms full of branches. From the few times we’d spoken before, I knew that he had a foreign accent, but it was decidedly not Hispanic. We live in a Hispanic area of town, so any other accent stands out sharply to us. I’d been wondering where he was from, so I decided to ask him after thanking him for his work.

“Your accent is beautiful. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Bulgaria,” came his reply with a thick, rolling accent.

“NO WAY! We have a daughter from Vidin!!”

George’s eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open. With a big smile, he shouted,

“GET OUT! I’M FROM VIDIN!!!”

At this point I’m sure I practically shrieked at him. It was a chilling moment in the best sense. After I gleefully babbled at him for a moment about adopting a girl from Vidin, I ran inside to get Kami and Mason, and we enjoyed a conversation about Bulgaria in the driveway. He spoke a bit in Bulgarian to Kami, who stopped what she was doing, listened, and responded with one word: “Vidin.” I’m sure she understood where he was from. It turns out that George is actually the cousin of the owner, who is also from Vidin. 

Vidin is a town of less than 50,000 people in the northwest corner of Bulgaria. Of all of the houses we could have chosen in Central Florida, we rented this home sight unseen through a property management company while we were still in Louisiana. 

vidin-pin

It was no surprise that two days later we received an e-mail from the property management company stating that the owner wanted to renew our lease for another year at the same rate!

Only God could orchestrate something like this. And it came at the perfect time, because in March we were still struggling in the trenches with Kami. I still wondered if we were really going to make it out of the woods and if we were really the right family for her. This was her Creator and mine, the LORD of the universe, responding to my fearful, exhausted questions with a resounding “Yes! Yes, Christen, she is in the right family, and you are in the right house, and Mason is in the right job. And I AM.”

Come and see what our God has done, what awesome miracles he performs for people! Psalm 66:5

A year later, this milestone of God’s mercy still fills me with awe and comforts me. 

Over the weekend, Mason generously sent me to a ladies’ event hosted by Wycliffe called Women of the Word. The last couple weeks have been intense for our family, and true to the logo displayed on the cover of the event program, the Lord refreshed my spirit, renewed my strength, revived my soul, and reminded me that He can rewrite even the most messed up parts of my story. Guest speakers Chrystal Evans Hurst and Annie F. Downs shared from Scripture and from their own lives about living abundantly in the midst of tragedy, unfulfilled desires, and unmet expectations. One of the most helpful reminders I gained from the weekend was that Jesus had alot to do during his earthly ministry. He valued space, Sabbath rest, silence and solitude, and He made sure to get each of those. Jesus created margin in His life. What an example for the burned out multitudes, maybe even specifically the moms. 🙂 

The guest band was Austin & Lindsey Adamec, whose song Walk on Waves (click for the lyric video) I absolutely loved. If you’re going through something that scares you, give it a listen; it’s powerful. 

Whatever might have happened in your life to leave you feeling panicky, disappointed, or empty, God can change the way you think and view things. When we invite Him into our circumstances and trust Him to sustain us, He rewrites our stories as we realign our lives with the truth of His Word.

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Kami Joy with her mom & dad

I’m so grateful to serve the God who rewrites stories! 

Christen

friendship after loss: I choose to lean on grace

I’ve found that when I don’t know where to turn first, I choose to lean on grace. And when it comes to grief, grace is a powerful tool.

A few weeks ago I shared with you about how I sometimes struggle with my words. My dear friend of days gone by shared transparently with us about offering hope amidst depression & anxiety, and now I’m excited to introduce you to another sweet friend from the same era. Johanna Mutz knows about friendship after loss. She’s a driving force in the creative team behind laurelbox, whose mission is to nourish hearts after loss. I’ve been grateful on more than one occasion for her help in knowing how to encourage suffering friends. Here’s Johanna! – Christen

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Special guest Johanna Mutz of laurelbox

I’ve heard it said that after experiencing grief, scales fall off your eyes and reveal pain in people all around you.  And in my own life, I can attest that loss is a powerful teacher of empathy and sensitivity.  But thankfully, I can also attest that personal pain isn’t a pre-requisite for carrying another’s burden well.  I will forever be grateful to my close community of women, some who comforted me from an intimate understanding of loss, and some who comforted me by tenderly carrying a pain they had not personally experienced.

When it comes to friendships after loss, I’ve been on both sides of the equation.  I’ve been the griever and the comforter, so I’ve learned a few lessons about friendships after loss.  And while it is true that friendship after loss is a tricky beast, the tools for connection and community in the wake of loss are actually very simple and God didn’t leave us without tools to navigate loss in this life.

I’ve found that when I don’t know where to turn first, I choose to lean on grace.  And when it comes to grief, grace is a powerful tool.  If you’re walking with a grieving friend, just know, you might text them, but not hear back. You might send a gift or a card, but not get a thank you note. You might offer to help, but not get a reply.  And listen close when I say this, it’s probably not personal. Your beautiful friend may barely be getting by. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to hear from you, or see you, or that you hurt their feelings. It means they are grieving. So give them lots and lots of grace, and keep showing up.  And if they don’t text back, still text that you love them. If they don’t say thank you for a card or gift, don’t bring it up. If they don’t reply to an offer for help, drop dinner in a cooler on their front porch. Increase your grace and decrease your need for affirmation. Grace has a beautiful opportunity to show up in grief.  Release your own opinions about things.  Know that someday, you will need that grace in return.  Life is so much more abundant when we give endless grace.

Secondly, just be there for them.  Your words can’t fix their pain.  Don’t offer platitudes or give advice, especially if you’ve never been there.   As much as you can, try and sit in their pain with them.  It might make you feel a little jumpy and insecure.  But just try. Your discomfort in talking about their loss is infinitely less difficult than their reality.  So just try to embrace any awkwardness, sit in their pain, and give them space to process at their own pace.  Remember too, that there will be times they want to do something normal.  So be ok with that too.  If they want to sit in your living room, eat cookies, and binge on old Friends episodes, then guess what, tonight you’re eating cookies and bingeing on old Friends episodes.  Give them freedom to be wherever they need to be in their own time.

And lastly, I find it really helpful to make a firm plan of how to support your friend.  It might feel forced and contrived, however, I think that without a plan, the chaos of the life can suck your time away before you know it.  So write dates that might be hard for your friend on your calendar, and make a point to reach out during seasons that might be especially difficult, like the holidays or near birthdays.

You can do this hard work.  It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.  Together is the best way to walk through darkness, and we will all need this kind of friend someday or another.

Be sure to explore laurelbox, which you can also follow on Facebook and Instagram. I think you’ll be as grateful as I am for this small business, and you’ll find all sorts of treasures including the beautiful gifts below. Thank you for ministering to hurting hearts, Johanna, and for sharing your wisdom with us!

 

so you’re thinking about homeschooling?

Talk to any homeschooling mom, and you will likely get a completely different list of encouraging books and resources! Each of us is free to dive in and pursue home education in the way that best fits our family. So, even if none of these books appeal to you, you can still find out which flavor of homeschooling suits you best and start implementing it with your children.

You can do it! It’s exciting to have been homeschooling our children for long enough that I’m no longer the one asking all the questions – there are some I can actually answer. I hope to one day be like my wonderful mother-in-law who has a gift for encouraging every parent who is considering homeschooling. She’s seen almost every curriculum in existence and has the right perspective to help parents feel equipped. I may never know quite as much as she does, but I do hope to be a similar voice of encouragement to young moms embarking on the holy and rewarding task of educating their children!

One helpful book I read early on was The Homeschooling Handbook, 2nd Edition. It provided me with my first glimpse into the different styles of home education. It’s full of short testimonials from parents all over the country and gives a good overview of the process, including some of the more intimidating details like state laws and record keeping. I like how author Mary Griffith doesn’t waste time in bringing up the “s” word: “Socialization is, really and truly, a complete nonissue. People worry about it and they shouldn’t. Not even a little bit. Unless you lock your children in the basement, they will get ‘socialized.'” (page 11)

Shortly after reading it, I embarked on a structured approach to home education with our 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. We schooled while their baby brother napped. Even though I myself was homeschooled from first through sixth grade, I still felt nervous about starting the journey with our own kids! Here are some notes from summer 2013 when we took the plunge.

We just finished up our first month of homeschooling! I love homeschooling! I will always remember how Mason told me on one of our first dates that he would only marry a woman willing to homeschool his children. We’re obviously a match made in heaven. 🙂 It really helps to have a mother-in-law who is a homeschool curriculum advisor. I know I would be struggling with a much lower confidence level without all the material that she has given me over the past few years. She even ordered the Interlock Program (Weaver Interlock) for us, and that thing is GREAT.

It’s about as old-school as homeschool can get, and I like it. The first week was all about Daddy, building a framework for discussing God as our Father. Since then we’ve discussed God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, truth, the first and second days of creation, light, color, air, beginning math and so much more. Each subject is woven into one overarching topic in the first chapter of Genesis so that only I as the teacher see the transitions from Bible to science to social studies to art to math, and so on. The curriculum advises to dedicate about an hour and a half, three days per week to the material, and it’s worked out just so. Once the hour and a half of creating, singing, dancing, drawing, painting, playing and listening are over, I am able to find opportunities throughout each day to reinforce and further explore the topics. When we touch on a topic that makes Ezekiel’s eyes light up, we are free to chase that rabbit trail as far as his 4-year-old boy attention span allows.
Weaver is definitely the perfect curriculum for us to start out with. I treasure watching Eden and Ezekiel, though 20 months apart in age, begin their “formal” schooling journeys together – because we all know that school really starts with mom and dad the day a baby is born. Interlock combines preschool and kindergarten activities in one teacher’s book, but of course Eden (the blessed second child) is very close to functioning at Ezekiel’s kindergarten level.
I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of this wonderful new world. I don’t have adequate words to express how much I enjoy being with our children all day. Yes, I sometimes feel as if I’m going crazy, but that’s because I have three children ages 4 and under. You would have to pay ME to make me hand them over to you for the day. I adore them and despite occasional frustration and exhaustion (okay, make that constant exhaustion), I feel the time slipping quickly through my hands. I do not want to miss a moment of their childhood. I recently read that a good childhood is like an early heaven. I want to give our children that early heaven.

As time went on, I wanted to zero in more on which “flavor” of homeschooling would be the best fit for us. One helpful tool was Simply Charlotte Mason, where you can now get a free e-book about the five flavors of homeschooling. I was already feeling drawn to the Charlotte Mason approach, and reading For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School strengthened that attraction. I lent my book to someone so I don’t have any quotes to share with you, but it lays out an inspiring, natural, organic and holistic approach to education. After reading it, I felt relaxed, equipped and excited to continue on our homeschooling journey!

I’m not the only mom who likes to lend out a good book. A friend lent me Charity Hawkins’ The Homeschool Experiment, a Novel. A novel? Yes, a novel. It’s written in first person, stream-of-consciousness style. I wouldn’t call it polished or literary, but it was engaging and encouraging. I finished it in about a week (which is fast for me) and gave it back to her so she could lend it out again! One thing homeschooling moms can always use is more encouragement.


Finally, I’m reading Seasons of a Mother’s Heart right now. This one is is written by Sally Clarkson of Whole Heart Ministries. It’s a collection of her essays and reads like a biblical devotional for homeschooling moms. I’m only a third of the way through, but it’s already refreshed me. There might be an updated version, but this is the one I’m reading and can heartily recommend. I like how she stated something I’ve just recently come to realize: “I didn’t have to teach my children to learn. God had already prepared them to learn, and I just needed to give them room. I am simply a facilitator, releasing skills and abilities already there in my children. That was an unanticipated surprise…What a deeply satisfying and surprising joy it has been for me to discover that my children came prepared by God to learn.” (page 89)


Talk to any homeschooling mom, and you will likely get a completely different list of encouraging books and resources! Each of us is free to dive in and pursue home education in the way that best fits our family. So, even if none of these books appeal to you, you can still find out which flavor of homeschooling suits you best and start implementing it with your children. We’re grateful for the freedom we have in this country to educate our kids as we see fit! I pray it’s a liberty that continues for generations to come.

Happy homeschooling,

Christen

a tale of two survivors

Two children who spent their early years in the same orphanage in Vidin, Bulgaria sat beside each other poolside at a Disney resort this week. It was a sight to see!

Two children who spent their early years in the same orphanage in Vidin, Bulgaria sat beside each other poolside at a Disney resort this week. It was a sight to see! They both met their adoptive parents in January 2014, within days of each other. The following summer they both began new lives when they left Vidin with these bewildered, desperately hopeful parents and boarded planes to America.

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Nathaniel’s wonderful parents made time for a short visit with us during their vacation to Disney World. We were seriously inspired by them! They had four beautiful biological kids before following God’s call to bring home not just one, but two sons from Bulgaria. Nathaniel is their youngest.

The bond created by adopting children from the same institution is interesting. I felt like I already knew Misty through a Facebook group that we both frequented during the adoption process. It was bizarre sitting by a pool at Disney World sharing the different fragments of knowledge we possess about our children’s early lives.

Neither of our families knew the magnitude of the challenge that awaited us after the thrilling moment of busting our new child out of the orphanage gate. It was super encouraging to hear Misty say that they were just as shocked as we were by the reality of the special needs – and that siblings who thought they were gaining a playmate were in for a surprise. Nathaniel has some medical special needs – some of which were not documented – while Kami’s special needs are everything but medical. God reminded me through seeing Nathaniel and Kami together that He gave each family the exact needs that they could handle. And not only that, He is actively guiding each of us in how to best care for them while also considering our own parental needs and limitations.

Perhaps most inspiring was meeting all of Nathaniel’s siblings! Man, they were super cool. Each of them had the opportunity to travel to Bulgaria with their parents during the family’s second adoption. There is just something awesome about kids who are siblings to special needs adoptees. They’re a few years older than our crew, and they gave me a glimpse into the depth of understanding, compassion and maturity that the adoption journey can instill in siblings.

Another realization I had during this poolside meeting was that, despite my frustration about what Kami can’t yet verbalize about her years in Vidin, she can verbalize some things. You know how every parent deals with comparisons? It exists in the realm of adoption, too. A dear friend adopted a little boy from Bulgaria around the same time we got Kami, and it seemed to me like this bright little guy was speaking in full, coherent English sentences within days. Of course, I began to wonder, “Man! When will Kami be able to speak like that?” Well, only God knows if she ever will communicate that way; but I can be grateful for the level of communication that she does have. I remember our translator/social worker emailing me from Bulgaria about one year after our adoption to tell us that the fact Kami was starting to speak in sentences was totally amazing. Coming from her background of gross neglect, pharmaceutical abuse, and emotional deprivation, speaking at all (much less in sentences) seemed like a huge and unlikely achievement. It just goes to show that nothing is impossible with God.

It’s easier for me to survey the big picture at the end of the day, when everyone is in bed. From this vantage point, I can see that although the struggles are raw and draining, they pale compared to the deep satisfaction of knowing that God is using our lives for something BIG. In this sense, the struggle is supremely worth it. Yes, we still feel pangs of grief from time to time about our old life; but these days I more often find myself in awe watching the story unfold.

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We look so happy! This is not an accurate representation of our day-in/day-out, but it was a great moment to celebrate.

Misty, thank you for sharing your family with us for a couple of brief hours! We learned from you and were inspired by each member of your family.

All this talk of Kami’s early years makes me want to share with you the one “baby” photo we have of her. She was 3. It would still be another 4 long years before she would know the love of her family.

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The one baby photo we have of Kami Joy – oh, how I would have enjoyed picking up and loving on that little baby! (age 3)

Finally, here is the image that started it all. I scrolled past it on a list of waiting children in 2013, then scrolled back up to take a closer look because something about her caught my eye. The rest, as they say, is history.

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First photo we ever saw of Kami in 2013: the waiting list image that started it all

Are you willing to view photos of waiting children around the world, perhaps even ones with special needs? I will warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart. You might sense God calling you to do something about it. You’ll find some of their faces and stories here. But be encouraged: He will be with you every step of the way if you say yes!

Receiving this Scripture (1 Peter 4:10-11) from a fellow special needs mom recently encouraged me, and I hope it encourages you, too:

God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ.

 

Christen

 

offering hope amidst depression & anxiety

In contemplating our words and their power to bring life or death, how exactly does one approach someone who is battling depression and anxiety? How does one offer encouragement and support when the sufferer is so unreachable and despondent? Do words even help?

In answer to my recent question, Whitney Hachinsky is here to share from her heart and her experience. Whitney and I had each other’s backs during that magical, life-threatening time called high school. I still remember kind words Whitney spoke to me when we were fourteen. Sixteen years later, they’re still with me, proving that words can be gifts that keep on giving. Let’s learn from her now!  – Christen

 

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Special guest blogger Whitney Hachinsky

Eradicating A Societal Stigma: Offering Hope Amidst Depression & Anxiety

depression: a pressing down; lowering; a state of feeling sad; dejection; anger; a psychoneurotic or psychotic disorder marked especially by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration, a significant increase or decrease in appetite and time spent sleeping; hopelessness; sometimes suicidal tendencies.

anxiety: an apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness; an abnormal and overwhelming sense of fear; doubt concerning the reality of a threat; self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it; mentally distressing concern or interest.

If you search the Merriam-Webster dictionary for the words “depression” and “anxiety,” the aforementioned explanations will follow. When one is troubled, weighed down, disquieted, and cheerless, it is simultaneously pitiful and lonely. Furthermore, it is oftentimes a brutal, debilitating double-edged sword because one feels incredibly low while also harboring guilt, shame, and embarrassment over their mental and emotional state. It is difficult to conjure the courage and bravery to speak about the truth of mental illness, particularly in a culture and society that attaches such enormous negative stigmas to the concept of being “mentally ill.” Even within the Christian church, it is frightening and challenging to discuss clinical depression and anxiety because they are so easily misunderstood, and one simply cannot relate unless they have also walked the dark and isolating path.

In contemplating our words and their power to bring life or death, how exactly does one approach someone who is battling depression and anxiety? How does one offer encouragement and support when the sufferer is so unreachable and despondent? Do words even help?

Admittedly, I have struggled for years with depression and anxiety. There are times when my illness is less noticeable and powerful, but there are also periods of immense grief and darkness. If I’m truly honest with people (and myself), I have never really known life aside from depression and anxiety. It somehow feels coded into my family history, my genes, and I can look back on numerous periods and experiences of my life through adult eyes now readily recognizing and admitting I was struggling against an unknown enemy.

My first diagnosis was given to me six weeks postpartum, following the birth of my son. It was horrifying. I felt trapped in a pit of despair and fear. I thankfully never entertained thoughts of harming my baby, but I could not escape the sense of wanting out, to simply escape life and be done with pain and hardship. I felt I was lost at sea, bobbing up and down amongst waves threatening to take me under, and oftentimes ready to surrender to drowning. I didn’t want to be alive. One moment, I couldn’t stop myself from crying or screaming, and the next moment I found myself numbly lying in bed, a mere shell of myself. My lowest point arose when I realized I was thinking about how many pills it would require to fall asleep forever, to quietly and effortlessly drift away. And I felt ashamed. I felt horrified. I felt tragically hopeless and guilty. I didn’t want to admit I was struggling because I worried they’d lock me up, take away my baby, deem me an unfit mother . . . you name an irrational fear, and I had it racing through my mind.

I prayed God would grant me bravery, and I eventually did make an appointment with my physician. As I sat in the waiting room filling out a form related to postpartum depression, I was sobbing—ever aware of the people staring and increasingly certain that this sickness was both beyond my control and very, very advanced. I couldn’t shake the sensation that something was wrong with me, and I was terrified.

I felt so alone. Everywhere I turned, people were talking about the joys of a newborn, the sweet smell of their innocent heads, the happiness of becoming a mother, and how sweet it was to cuddle their infant babe. I wanted nothing to do with my son. Holding him made me angry and guilty. Looking in the mirror, I hated myself. I had endured a very difficult labor that resulted in a c-section, and there was no one who could relate or speak truth to me. I was alone in my experience and suffering. I regretted everything and loved nothing, especially myself. I. Hated. Myself.

Around the time my son turned four-months-old, I noticed improvements. Medication and counseling—only truly effective when coupled together—had been God’s means of providing relief and healing, though I never stop remembering that true healing and restoration for me will only come in Heaven. Depression and anxiety remain constant struggles and companions for me. They rear their ugly heads at times when I expect and other times when they surprise me, but rest assured they are never welcome.

I know now that I am better with medication. I still see a counselor when I sense myself reaching a precipice where I will either fall into the pit or remain afloat. There are days I cannot breathe or function, days I feel I’m forever treading water and simply surviving. There are days I despise myself and my circumstances. There are days I cannot concentrate or stop crying. There are days when everything feels great.

Depression and anxiety are illnesses as much as cancer is a sickness. You cannot control it, predict it, or fight it alone. It’s interesting how little discussion arises regarding mental illness. There are walks and fundraisers for plenty of diseases, but for some reason when you mention depression, people immediately assume “craziness.” If one could simply choose joy and have more faith, all would be well. It’s as if we’re suffering from mental illness because we are weak and lacking faith.

Here’s the truth: I am a Christian. Jesus Christ is my LORD and Savior. I believe wholeheartedly in the message of the Gospel, and I walk in relationship with Him. I also have depression and anxiety. I take medicine and go to counseling because it helps. It doesn’t cure it, but it helps. My hope is in Him. I rejoice in Him. I am thankful to Him. But I also suffer from something I cannot help or control. I have an illness that only partly defines who I am and how I live my life. If I could simply have more faith, pray more, or choose happiness, don’t you think I would? In a heartbeat!

If someone breaks a bone, the physicians will reset it, cast, and wait for healing. If someone has cancer, no one questions the treatment of chemotherapy or radiation. If someone has a dangerous infection, antibiotics are always administered. Please understand that everyone has bouts of darkness in life, and all individuals will encounter struggle and hardship—Jesus promised as much for our time on earth. When you struggle with depression and anxiety, however, it is on another level. It is more intense, longer lasting, and is it lonely.

If we could stop treating the mentally ill like the guilty party, it would be tremendously beneficial. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes silence and your presence is the best option. Don’t stop loving us. Write us notes and remind us we are loved. Tell us what we’re doing well (chances are, we’re doing an excellent job pointing out our flaws without assistance). Hug us. Hold us. Simply be there, so we don’t believe the lie we’re alone. Don’t take offense if we lash out or don’t respond. Don’t offer solutions or problem solve for us. Encourage, encourage, encourage.

If we could comprehend the human brain, we would be God. Science and medicine have made impressive strides, but we will never come close to understanding the intricacies of the human body, its processing, chemical components, and so forth. In the meantime . . .

“Unless the LORD had helped me, I would soon have settled in the silence of the grave. I cried out, ‘I am slipping!’ but your unfailing love, O LORD, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer” (Psalm 94:17-19 NLT).

“Watch the way you talk . . . Say only what helps, each word a gift” (Ephesians 4:29 MSG).