More to the Story

About this time a year ago I had an experience in the Washington D.C. airport that I doubt I’ll ever forget.  In the baggage claim area, there was a mom holding a little boy and the dad followed right behind with most of their luggage.  The airport was bustling with travelers anxious to get home to their families before Thanksgiving the next day.  In the midst of a sea of travelers, this particular mom was rubbing her son’s back and whispering in his ear in an attempt to help him settle down.  The young boy wasn’t crying, but he was making lots of noise.  Out from the crowd a lady emerged, approaching the little family from behind.  She got shoulder to shoulder with the mom, looked right at the boy, and scolded aggressively, “Stop screaming.”

Perhaps you can imagine how that mom felt, but I can do more than make a guess.  Since I was the mom holding the noisy little boy, I can recount the feelings I’d sometimes like to forget.  If I had to guess about something, though, I suppose that lady believed it wasn’t appropriate behavior for a child to be making such a racket in a public place.  I’d tend to agree with her, but in the airport on November 22, 2017 there were a few crucial facts she didn’t know:

She didn’t know that my son has special needs and was screaming because he was overly stimulated.

She didn’t know that he had spent the first five years of his life in an orphanage.

She didn’t know that he had only been with us, his parents, for the past two days (a year ago today, if you’re keeping up).

She didn’t know that he had spent the better part of a day traveling and hadn’t slept at all.

She didn’t know that his world had changed overnight or that he was coming home to a place he’d never been.

There was a lot that lady didn’t know about Deni or our family.  As tempting as it is to vilify her in my mind, she has instead served as a mirror to show me parts of my heart that might bear a resemblance to hers.  What I learned in the first few moments of landing in the United States with my son is something I’ve relearned time and again this past year: there’s always more to the story.

There’s more to Deni’s story than what you can gather from observing him in an airport or in Walmart, just like there’s more to my story than what you see at first glance.  The people we encounter doing ordinary things on ordinary days all have stories we don’t see; some are living their extraordinary moments right in front of us and we don’t even know it.  To that lady in the airport, my son was a nuisance and I was permissive.  But I was living a dream come true as a brand new mom holding the child I had prayed for, simply trying to process the enormity of the experience.  She didn’t know that.  She couldn’t have known that.

We don’t have to know the details of strangers’ lives to live compassionately.  We can choose to resist ignorance by remembering that there’s more to their stories than what we see in the checkout aisle or the restaurant booth or the waiting room or the airport.  Of course we don’t have to condone everything we observe, but we can learn to be conscious that there’s more going on than what we see – for better or for worse.

As Christians this shouldn’t surprise us, this idea that there’s more going on than meets the eye.  After all, it’s thematic of the redemptive work the Bible recounts from Genesis to Revelation.  Each story in the Bible is part of a larger Story, moving toward the arrival of Jesus or reflecting on His life and work.  And when we read it carefully, we discover that our lives are actually caught up in that great Story.  The devastation of Eden, the anticipation of the Messiah, the heartbreak of the crucifixion, the triumph of the resurrection, and the hope of Jesus’ return – all of this has a bearing on the 24 hours of a late November day.

In the past year since we reunited with Deni for good, we’ve ridden a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences.  We’ve learned quite a bit, but still have more to discover.  Of all the lessons learned and relearned, the one I remember most is the one I was introduced to first – there’s always more to the story.

When it seems like I’m in over my head, I remember the rest of the story that tells me God’s grace abounds and His strength is evident in my weakness.

When I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, I remember God’s promise to give wisdom to those who ask.

When days are great and gladness abounds, I remember that God is the giver of good gifts and the ultimate source of lasting joy.

And when I’m out and about, prone to write people off quickly or cast a stone of judgment, I’m learning to remember there’s more to their stories than what I can observe – just like there’s more to Deni’s, more to mine, and more to yours.

For Christians, the truth is that there’s more to our stories – to the Story – than simply the sum of our experiences.  Yes, pain still hurts, sadness is still a reality, and questions still linger.

But there’s more than pain and loss.

More than grief and sorrow.

More than waiting and bondage.

More even than death.

There’s healing and abundance.

There’s joy and comfort.

There’s fulfillment and a Rescuer.

There’s even resurrection.

And that part of the Story is what enables us to fight for hope and choose compassion when the stories we experience or witness don’t seem to make any sense.  What we see and feel today is significant, it’s just not the whole Story.

An Open Letter to My Son’s Preschool

To all of you – teachers, aides, therapists, administrators, cafeteria crew, and other support staff:

I’m not sure if parents are typically sad at the end of a school year. My guess is that the reactions are unique to each individual and the details of that particular year. But in our case, sadness is the best description of how we feel as Deni’s time with you comes to a close.

By now most of you are familiar with Deni’s background and the general circumstances that brought him to our family in November. Just six weeks after coming home to a completely new life, Deni started preschool, so it’s safe to say that you have played a major role in his adjustment. I remember picking him up after his first day and his teacher telling me he seemed overwhelmed – understandably. Since that day in January, though, he has continued to gain confidence and adapt so well that we increased his time with you from three half days to four and eventually to five.

We’ve been so happy with Deni’s experience since he started at the beginning of the semester, but something changed a few months ago. Over the weekend Deni took off – he started walking independently. It was a huge accomplishment for him, and we were so proud. When we came to school that Monday morning, I helped him get to the lobby door and then let him go. As we entered the building, one of you happened to be coming down the stairs and Deni walked toward you on his own. Your reaction to him was so genuine and so invested. Your pride was obvious. We redirected Deni to the cafeteria, and as he walked to his spot across the room for breakfast, you told every teacher we passed, “Look at Deni!”

That experience made it abundantly clear why Deni loved school so much – it’s because he was seen and loved. Some of Deni’s needs are unique to his background and medical conditions. But in a lot of ways, it seems like he just craves what we all do. In fact, it’s pretty remarkable to watch how people thrive when they are really seen and really loved.

Whether or not you intended to, you have honored the image of God in our son. You have taken the time to get to know him as an individual and have celebrated him for who he is. I’ve never gotten the impression that he has been categorized solely by what he can or cannot do; instead, he has been seen as a unique person, treated with such dignity, and recognized for the special ways he enhances a place just by being in it.

You have set an example that’s worth following. Not everyone does the same kind of work you do or has the same opportunity to invest so deeply in so many lives at any given time. But we can all follow you in pausing to really see people for who they are – all with their own sacred stories. We can refuse to rush to judgment or to write off those who don’t fit the molds we’ve created. And we can all show up, day after day, to do the same tasks that may seem small, knowing that if we choose to really love people along the way, we may look back and realize those seemingly menial things turned out to be pretty big after all.

Thanks to all of you for greeting Deni as he made his way across the cafeteria each morning, even if he wasn’t in your class. Thank you for the pictures and videos you shared throughout the day. Thank you for the notes you sent home, the meals you prepared specially, the milestones you celebrated, the diapers you changed, the therapy you provided, and so much more. I don’t know if those things felt significant in the moment, but there seemed to be genuine love behind it all, and on his last day of preschool that feels like a really big deal to us.

So thank you for teaching Deni this semester, and in the process for teaching me too. I know we’ll both be better off because of it.

The Day I’ll Never Forget

I don’t think I’ll ever forget how I felt as David and I quietly walked the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria in November.  We huddled together, not only for warmth, but to offer each other the unspoken support of physical closeness.  It was my 29th birthday, but the gift I most anticipated wouldn’t be in my arms until the next day.  We wandered about aimlessly hoping the time would pass, but the day was so surreal it was as if the clock stood still.  When dinnertime finally came, we enjoyed a meal at our favorite restaurant, walked back to our rented apartment, and put on Netflix in an attempt to wind down.  I vacillated between calm and frantic, enjoying the normalcy of our evening and anticipating the unknown to come in a matter of hours.

My alarm sounded early the next morning.  I hadn’t slept much, but adrenaline carried me to the shower where my mind raced as I stood under the hot water.  Wanting to stick to my routine, I went to the next room, made coffee, and got comfortable on the couch.  But I was in a daze.  When David woke up, we exchanged greetings, expressed disbelief that the day had come, and got ready in silence.  What could we say on a day like this?  I handed him a card that I had written a few days prior knowing I would want to express my sentiments without struggling to verbalize them in the moment.  We spent a couple minutes praying together, and then David looked out the window.

“She’s here.  Are you ready?”  I took a deep breath, gave him a tight squeeze, and we left the apartment to meet our in-country adoption facilitator knowing we’d return shortly with our son.  Seeing a familiar face again put us at ease, at least as much as was possible on a day like this.  We made the short walk to the metro station and boarded the subway for a memorable destination.  A few minutes later we walked back up into the daylight and were greeted by falling snowflakes while our feet carried us on the route we’d taken several times earlier that summer.

“There it is,” David said, as our eyes fixed on the tan building down the street.  Deni’s orphanage.  In July, that building had been the scene of the most heart wrenching goodbye imaginable, and we couldn’t wait to get back as soon as possible.  As we got closer to the gate, I wondered if Deni knew we were coming.  I wondered if he was even slightly aware that today was different – that this was a Monday unlike any other Monday.  We made our way through the gate, entered the front door, and took a seat in the lobby.  We were greeted by one of Deni’s caretakers, and I handed over a Walmart bag stuffed with a diaper, khaki pants, flannel shirt, socks, and boots.  I held on to his coat and gloves.  The friendly caretaker left, and we were shuffled into the director’s office where we signed some papers and sat in silence for what felt like forever but was only a few minutes.

The silence was broken when we heard an unforgettable shriek on the stairs, through the hallway, and finally nearing the office door.  The lump in my throat came immediately, and then the door opened.  Our son, dressed in his very own clothes, walked across the room unassisted.  My eyes burned and my hands covered my dropped jaw.  Deni climbed into David’s lap and started playing with his lips – picking up right where we left off four months earlier.  He made his way to me and did the same thing, a subtle acknowledgement from God that Deni remembered us.  Minutes later we walked out of the orphanage as a family, waited for a taxi, and were soon dropped off at the apartment we had left less than two hours prior.  For the first time ever, we were totally alone with our son.  What in the world?

It’s been almost five months since we arrived home with Deni, and our lives have been enriched beyond words.  We’ve seen him transition to preschool and thrive under the care of loving teachers and therapists; we’ve watched him learn to walk independently; we’ve witnessed him gain confidence; and we’ve enjoyed hearing him try to make new sounds and form syllables.  We’ve also been more tired than we could have anticipated; we’ve been challenged by the learning curve of adopting a five-year-old who has special needs; and we’ve struggled at times to understand exactly what is best for him in a given moment.

November 20, 2017 was not an ordinary day.  It was extraordinary in every sense of the word, but the days that followed have been a marriage of the old normal and a new normal.  God’s mercies have met us every morning, just like always.  His faithfulness has been evident.  His provision has been sufficient.  He has worked wonders – in our hearts, in stacks of paperwork, in a Bulgarian orphanage, in a Bluefield preschool, and under our roof.  He’s been doing this all along – splitting seas, providing in the wilderness, raising the dead, defending the fatherless, and defying the odds.  He’s the same as He’s always been, but our eyes have been opened slightly wider to behold Him in greater wonder and expectation.

Who is this who writes such beautiful stories?

Who is this who does exceedingly, abundantly more than we could imagine?

Who is this who gives us better gifts than we would have ever requested?

This is our God, who declares with every act of faithfulness, “There’s more where that came from.”

This is our God, who alone does “wonders without number” (Job 5:9).

And this is our God – the One whose eyes never left a little boy in a Bulgarian orphanage or a heartbroken couple in West Virginia who were unsure if they’d ever have a child.  Wonder of wonders, He saw the three of us all along and brought us together at just the right time.

Who is this?  This is our God.

Is It Really Worth It?

When David and I were in the process of buying a house a couple of years ago, we were required to hire a qualified appraiser to thoroughly inspect the house to determine its value so that we didn’t over-borrow.  This standard process is likely familiar to most who have purchased houses as banks are unwilling to lend more than property is worth.

The appraisal process isn’t limited to real estate, though.  We do it all the time.  We assess the value of cars and colleges, clothing and commitments before deciding whether or not we’re willing to make the investment.  Some of these are low-stakes decisions, while others have more significant ramifications.  Overspending on a dress, for example, is inconsequential when compared to assuming excessive student debt without any foreseeable ability to pay it off.

Even the Bible touches on this concept.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He warned that following Him would be costly (Luke 9:23, 57-62; 14:25-33).  He urged His followers to carefully consider the weighty commitment of discipleship.  But in Matthew 13:44, Jesus described His kingdom this way: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up.  Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

I can’t shake the image of this parabolic man from my head.  One day he stumbled upon something of such value that he joyfully sold everything he had to acquire it.  The only logical reason he responded this way was because he was convinced that what was in the field was of greater value than everything he owned.  Was it costly?  Absolutely.  Was it worth it?  Apparently.

“Counting the cost” of following Jesus focuses more on what we have to lose, but the natural counterpart is appraising the value of discipleship, which is primarily concerned with what we have to gain.  Both are important – essential, even – if we are to follow Him for the long haul, and both are modeled by the fictional man Jesus introduced in Matthew 13.  Following Jesus might cost us comfort or popularity.  It might mean giving up a position or relationship.  For some, it could even result in severe persecution or death.

There are real costs associated with following Jesus, and I certainly don’t want to downplay the sacrifices many have made or will make on the path of discipleship.  But it’s important to realize that following Jesus isn’t just costly – He doesn’t encourage us to make a foolish investment.  Following Jesus, with all it costs, also puts us on the receiving end of lasting joy and abundant life, among innumerable other blessings.

For too long I’ve separated the cost from the value of following Jesus, and it doesn’t make much sense.  Like a good appraiser strives to accurately assess property value, so counting the cost of following Jesus must also include a consideration of His worth.  The apostle Paul did this well.  Having sized up his family background and personal achievements, he concluded that “everything [is] loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).  It was this assessment – not some sort of burdened obligation – that fueled his faithful ministry even when it meant imprisonment, beatings, stoning, and ongoing danger (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

Those who continue to faithfully follow Jesus – by grace, through the power of His Spirit – even when it’s painful and costly are those who really believe they’re not getting the short end of the stick.  Those who are overjoyed to be “all in” because they just can’t believe they’d get to be part of something so eternally significant for such temporary sacrifice (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).  Those who know that Jesus hasn’t invited us to be part of a scam.  He’s not out to get us, nor is He in the business of robbing our joy – as if we can even find it apart from Him.

The man in Matthew 13 goes to show us that following Jesus will never cost more than it is worth.  Jesus Himself promised, “There is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30).  No matter what we lose as followers of Jesus, we stand to gain so much more.  It’s like Scott Sauls tweeted: “If your hope is anchored in Jesus, your long-term worst case scenario is resurrection and everlasting life.”

And that outcome is just one of the many reasons Scripture says so emphatically, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” – no matter how much it costs us along the way (Romans 10:11).

Much of my energy in recent months has been spent on adoption paperwork, which helps explain the less frequent blogging.  If you’re interested in adoption updates, you can learn more here.

The Ministry I Never Wanted

My heart raced as I prepared to hit “publish”.  I debated whether or not to write anything at all.  The vulnerability scared me, and the ongoing uncertainty of my situation would make the exposure that much more uncomfortable.  I took a deep breath, and with one click the story of my infertility was public.

In the year since I shared our struggles, I’ve heard from a handful of people in similar circumstances.  I’ve been asked for advice, thanked for my honesty, and received requests for prayer.  I’m so glad I didn’t scrap my original post altogether.

This isn’t a story about me, though.  It’s a story about a God who refuses to waste our pain.

For most of our battle with infertility, I assented to the theological truisms – at least intellectually.  God has a plan.  God is at work.  God can use this for His glory.  That third one really got to me, though.  God could be glorified through my infertility, but I really would’ve liked for Him to be honored by a pregnancy instead.

I resisted telling people about what we were going through because I didn’t want that to be my ministry.  In all honesty, I didn’t want to have a story of God’s sufficiency in the face of unfulfilled longings and unrealized dreams.  Rather, I hoped to share about God’s deliverance and physical healing.  I held off as long as I could – partially because I feared the vulnerability and partially because I was waiting to tell a different story.  Eventually, though, I couldn’t keep quiet.  Something – Someone – compelled me to share.

Had it not been for God’s prompting, I would’ve remained silent.  But because of His leading I’ve been reminded that while we don’t get to choose what happens to us, we can choose how we’ll respond.  Our circumstances may be beyond our control, but we can decide whether or not we’ll surrender them as instruments of ministry.

Choosing to surrender our stories to God for Him to use as He sees fit is not an acknowledgement that the pain has dulled or the crisis has been resolved or the answers have been found.  Many times, in fact, it’s just the opposite.  In their book titled The Life We Never Expected, Andrew and Rachel Wilson share “hopeful reflections on the challenges of parenting children with special needs”.  Rachel identifies the natural tendency to explain away suffering as an unhealthy pressure.  She explains, “We strive daily to make sense of the senseless, so that the pain we’ve experienced will not be in vain.  In other words, we write our own happy ending.  But we are not the storyteller.  We don’t have the power to resolve the twisted plot and bring triumph out of tragedy…So I have to remember: the story is not mine to save.  The pressure to write a story that makes sense of what has happened to us, as acute as it can feel, must be resisted; God is the great storyteller, the divine happy-ending maker; and I’m not.”

Of course,  not everything is up in the air.  God does reveal the ultimate happy ending in His Word.  He provides promises we can cling to regardless of our circumstances.  But as long as we’re on this side of heaven, our ability to “make sense of the senseless” will be limited, and the story may always appear to be unresolved.

As Rachel Wilson noted, the story is not mine to save, but it is mine to share.  When we share our stories in a way that acknowledges God as “the divine happy-ending maker”, we honor Him in a way we never could by trying to figure it all out or explain it all away – which is why the ministries we don’t really want are often the ones we most need to embrace.  

Sharing our struggles calls for wisdom and discernment.  It’s crucial to prayerfully consider the timing and the audience, how much to share – if at all – and in what way.  There are situations when it might not be appropriate to give others a glimpse into our pain, and sometimes we just aren’t quite ready to talk about it.  But we can’t let the desire for a different story be what keeps us from sharing the one God’s writing.  And we can’t stay quiet until we have all the answers, otherwise we’ll never speak.

For all the times people have told me they’ve been encouraged by my story, I’ve been blessed by hearing theirs.  Many of the people who reached out to me decided to share some of the details of their circumstances – some strikingly similar to my own, and others entirely different.  Each time, they ministered to me in ways they probably didn’t expect or even intend to – and it wasn’t because they tidied up their stories, but because in the mess of it all, they hope in a Storyteller who will eventually make “everything sad…come untrue”.

And because of Him, the ministries we never really wanted often end up bearing fruit we never could have imagined.