From my front row seat

Sunday, June 25, 2017

It's not always love at first sight

It started out so lovely.  There we were, eating lunch side by side.  The sweet toddler in the high chair next to me was eating chicken noodle soup while I enjoyed my leftover kale soup.  Swimming lessons had just ended and we were at the Blue Monarch kitchen table as moms and kids, and staff members, scurried around preparing their lunches.  The room was filled with lots of laughter and chatter.  That's one of the things I love about bringing my lunch.  It gives me a chance to visit with the amazing women and children we serve and get to know them better.  It was another special Blue Monarch moment.

Then - all of a sudden I heard a loud splashing sound with great force and velocity.  The adorable little girl next to me was calmly spooning noodles into her mouth, all the while peeing a river through her swimsuit, right onto the floor.  She must have a bladder the size of a watermelon because there was a virtual lake beneath her.

I guess this is a great example of the environment in which we work because I paused to say, "Bon Appetit", to no one in particular, informed her mother that we had guests coming any minute and it would be nice if the massive mess on the floor was gone, then kept eating my soup as if nothing had happened.  (It's not always a Hallmark moment at Blue Monarch with hosts of angels singing in the background.)

When I was a young teenager I made frequent visits to the doctor's office for a nagging stomach problem.  In looking back I think I was simply anxious about being a teenager.  But I grew very tired of the routine, which always began with a pesky urine sample.

One morning before my mother and I left for yet another doctor's appointment, I happened to look in the refrigerator and discover a Tupperware container filled with leftover pineapple juice - the real syrupy kind from a can of pineapple rings.  Hey!  That looks familiar.  So I decided to play a little joke.  This was going to be great.

I hid the container in my purse and could hardly wait to implement my brilliant plan.  Sure enough, as soon as my name was called, the nurse handed me the usual cup and nodded toward the bathroom.  Just in case someone was listening, I turned on the faucet and let it run while I carefully poured the pineapple juice into the cup and flushed the excess down the toilet.  I marched out the door and placed the cup on my file as I had been instructed, then took my seat to watch what would happen next, which I had not considered until that moment.

I could hardly contain myself.  This was absolutely hilarious and without a doubt, one of the best tricks I had ever played.  It was hard to keep a straight face while I watched the nurse run her test on my fake urine specimen.  She quickly ran another one.  Then another one.  Her face gradually turned white as a sheet and she became increasingly frantic.

Suddenly she jumped up, grabbed the two doctors in the hallway, and rushed them back to see the results.  They looked just as alarmed as she did.  Occasionally they glanced over their shoulders at my innocent mother in the waiting room, then turned their backs and whispered among themselves.

Eventually the nurse looked over at me, and I suppose I must have looked pretty guilty because she yelled, "WHAT IS THIS?!"

Immediately I realized my joke was not funny to anyone but me.  I confessed it was pineapple juice and I suppose the sugar level was sky high and no one was laughing.  Especially my mother.

Both doctors stomped off in total disgust.  The nurse just stood there shaking her head as the color in her face swung all the way back to beet red.  No doubt they probably grumbled to themselves, "We come to work every single day only trying to help people - and then she comes in here expecting us to fix her problem when she's not willing to do her part!"

Does that sound familiar?

We do random drug testing at Blue Monarch.  Actually, we test for a variety of things:  drugs, alcohol, and even nicotine.  (We are a non-smoking facility.)  Occasionally we have someone who tries to fool us and finds ways to fake a test.  Instant coffee, her child's urine stored in a medicine bottle, you name it and someone has tried it.

This always aggravates me.  A woman comes to us for help, we are committed to helping her change her life, and then she does something like this that only cheats herself.  Aren't we all on the same team here?  Team Help Her?

Well, actually we may not be.  At least not yet.  Many of our women arrive here very broken.  Some have developed pretty sharp survival skills that may show up as deceit, manipulation, and even ugly entitlement.  Often they don't trust us - and they are suspicious of anyone who wants to help.  "Why are you doing this for me?", which usually means, "What's in it for you?"

These are thick, heavy walls to tear down.  It takes lots of time, great patience, loads of prayer, pretty intensive work - and especially the tremendous grace and mercy of God, to reach that sweet place of redemption.  But in the meantime there are some days when I honestly want to grab a woman by the shoulders and say, "What were you thinking?  Don't you see we are only trying to help you?  Do we care more about your recovery than you do?!"

That's when I have to take a deep breath and ask God to please show me what He sees in her.  "Please, Lord, help me see her through your eyes because I'm having a hard time loving her today."  And each time I get the same response.

"She is my daughter.  And I love her."

Well, this does the trick every time.  In that moment I am humbly reminded that she and I are actually sisters.  We are both children of God, and He loves each of us the very same - even on the days she hands us pineapple juice.

Thank you, Lord, for the raw and beautiful reality of recovery that you so graciously allow us to witness day after day.  Help us to feel your presence, even on the days that are hard.  Thank you for the gentle reminders that we are always to love others as you love us, and that when we do, the results can be amazing!  Amen.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Leave the Buckets Alone!

It was years before I knew the real story.  Just down the road from my farm, an older man sat in a junky car on his front lawn - every single day, year round.  In the winter he looked miserable all huddled up with his collar pulled around his ears.  In the summer he seemed pretty content, swung around with his feet on the ground and elbows resting on his knees.  Doing absolutely nothing.

Neighbors sometimes brought him corn to shuck or beans to snap - I figured it bothered them just as much as it did me, to see him wasting so much time day after day.  I was brought up with that saying, "Idle hands are the devil's workshop," which made his front yard look like a breeding ground for trouble.  That is, if he weren't so darn lazy.

A neighbor finally told me this man's story.  Turned out, his wife had banished him to the front yard years ago because of something he did to make her mad.  He wasn't allowed back inside until it got dark.  And come daylight, back outside he went.  Not sure why nighttime made a difference, but her forgiveness was clearly conditional.  That woman was sticking by her grudge!

Forgiveness is something we focus on a lot at Blue Monarch.  There are often extreme, intense issues surrounding forgiveness.  Things that are so grievous it's hard to imagine how anyone ever gets past them.  I believe that's one of the reasons Mother's Day and Father's Day are so difficult around here.

I can't help but remember the time I found a woman standing in front of rows and rows of Mother's Day cards at our local drug store.  She was crying.  I assumed she had probably just lost her mother.  But after reading one card after another and stuffing each back into its slot, she finally slammed one down and said, "Not one of these describes my mother!  All of these are for the mother I wish I had!"

Sadly, mothers and fathers have caused some of our residents' greatest pain.  Certainly not always, but often.  Perhaps the mother sold her daughter to support her own drug habit - or turned her back when her boyfriend repeatedly molested her daughter.

There are also numerous heartbreaking stories from women who were hideously victimized by their own fathers.  These are unthinkable offenses, that for most of us seem unforgivable.  It's no wonder drugs become an easy way to numb the terrible pain.

The women at Blue Monarch are some of the most amazing women I have ever known.  I often hold them up as a standard by which to measure myself.  This difficult issue of forgiveness is one of the reasons why.

I have seen the women of Blue Monarch reach into the depths of their souls with weeping, grieving hearts, and supernatural determination - and then miraculously overcome the bitterness and anger they so rightfully earned.  It's a beautiful and powerful process.

But their forgiveness is not conditional.  They don't hold a grudge until the sun goes down and pick it up again in the morning.  They totally and wholly let go.  They completely hand it to God and ask Him to take it from them.  And He does!

Isn't that where the true issue lies?  I think we often convince ourselves we have forgiven yet feel it's our right to hold onto the hurtful memory.  But when does that memory turn into a grudge?

When my daughter was about ten years old, she and I went on one of our usual horseback trail rides one summer.  I had just gotten a new goose neck trailer and we were barrelling down the interstate having a big ole' time, probably listening to some Restless Heart or Forester Sisters, when I happened to notice something crazy going on in my rear view mirror.

As if a tornado had hit the bed of the pickup truck, our heavy, black rubber feed buckets began tumbling in the air behind the cab, and every so often one would suddenly shoot out onto the interstate like a rocket.  Pretty soon every single one of them were gone and I could see cars swerving behind us to miss them.  Yikes.  This could cause an accident.

I quickly pulled onto the shoulder and parked.  I knew I didn't want to leave the truck running so I told my daughter to stand under some trees in the shade until I came back.  It was blazing hot and I knew I couldn't leave the horses in that metal trailer for long, but someone had to get the buckets off the road - and we were going to need them.

As I ran down the interstate to retrieve the buckets, I was a little surprised to see how far back they were.  Thankfully, off in the distance I could see a car pulling over from time to time to pick up the buckets for me.  Or at least that's what I thought.

When the car pulled over to one of the buckets near me, I ran to thank them, but they started to drive off.  What?  Of course, I foolishly ran to the car demanding an explanation, and surprisingly, they stopped.  I couldn't help but notice it was a nice looking family in their Sunday best as if they had just left church.  What's this?  A family that steals together?

They insisted they didn't have my buckets even though I knew they did.  "So then, what's that in the back floor board?"  I could see two of my buckets under the legs of the young girl in the back seat.  She was wearing a flowered sundress and looked quite innocent, but a little nervous.  She timidly handed them to me through the window.  

At that moment the father pulled the car back into traffic and there went the rest of my buckets.  I was furious!  I began stomping back completely disgusted, (probably mumbling some pretty ugly things to myself) and then a few seconds later, way off in the distance I saw that same car pull over in front of my truck.

Oh no!  My daughter is standing there under the trees completely unprotected!

I immediately dropped the buckets and started running as fast as I could, (not sure I've ever run that fast), but as soon as I reached the truck, completely out of breath, the little church family quickly took off.

What was I thinking?

I had left the most precious thing in the whole wide world standing there under the trees while I ran farther and farther away from her over some stupid buckets.  I risked losing the one thing that brought me the most joy in life for something that was completely worthless.

How many times do we focus on all the wrong things?  Things that have hurt us, things we just can't forgive, while we could be focusing instead on the joy that Jesus Christ so passionately wants us to have?

We sometimes think we have forgiven someone when we really haven't.  That painful memory we just can't stop thinking about, is often disguised as forgiveness, while in reality it's an ugly, bitter grudge.  It looks like a nice church family, but it's really a car full of thieves.  Thieves that want to rob us of our joy.

God wants us to forgive as He has forgiven us.  It's even included in the Lord's Prayer that we learned as kids.  But there is a secret side effect to forgiveness that I've learned from the women of Blue Monarch.

When they forgive the ones who have hurt them - and I mean, truly forgive them where they no longer hang onto the memories or carry a grudge, they actually become prettier.  Yes, it's true.  Prettier.  I bet you could ask anyone who works at Blue Monarch and they would agree with me.  It's something very tangible that changes on their faces and in the way they carry themselves.  It even spills over into the way they laugh, the clothes they wear, the way they spend their time, their relationships with their children, and how they see their future.  It is truly remarkable - and it is only through the tremendous strength God gives them that they are able to forgive to that magnitude and gain such beautiful freedom.

It's at this point they begin basking in the glow of the pure joy that was patiently waiting for them the whole time.  In fact, the glow on their faces becomes so intense, it actually reflects onto the faces of their children.  

And you know what that means?

It means those precious children will have fewer buckets of their own one day.   And they will learn to leave them in the road... right where they belong.

You turned my wailing into dancing;  you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.  O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.  Psalm 30:11  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Finding Meaning in a Suitcase of Grief

Surely it was a sick April Fool's joke.  It was the evening of April 1st when I got a text from one of our Blue Monarch graduates.  She forwarded me a Facebook post with Erin's beautiful face that indicated she had died that day - April Fool's Day.  We were hoping it wasn't true.

But it was true.

In two days it would have been a year since Erin graduated from our program.  My mind immediately flashed back to her bubbly personality, great sense of humor, and sparkling blue eyes.  And then of course, to her precious two boys.

Erin was so full of life, I couldn't help but remember some of the funny moments with her, too - like the time we all went to a tearoom for high tea.  She surprised us by breaking into a perfect English accent as soon as we arrived, then stayed in character the entire time we were there, which kept us in stitches.  How could she be gone?

When my father died I described that painful journey as a train ride where you stop at depots along the way and exchange one suitcase of grief for a different suitcase of grief.  It seemed there were distinctly unique stages of grief that came in all shapes and sizes.

So the first suitcase I grabbed when Erin died was one of complete shock.  I spent the next twenty-four hours basically numb as I systematically called each staff member to break the terrible news.  I wanted to cry but for some reason I couldn't.

The next day was Monday and the suitcase I carried that day was one of making sure everyone on our staff had oxygen.  I had two psychologists, who are very dear to us, meet with our staff to help us process what had happened.  Some of us spent eighteen months living very closely with Erin and a few new ones on our team only knew her by name.  But it was immediately clear that her death had impacted each of us in powerful and personal ways, and we were all hurting terribly for Erin's children.

I'll have to admit.  As I looked around the room at the beautiful, amazing people on our staff, and observed how they were hurting so deeply over Erin's death, I had to resist having a few George Bailey moments where I wondered if all these people could have been spared this pain if I had not started Blue Monarch in the first place.  And yes, I do realize how crazy that is, but it was hard not to feel some ownership in the raw hurt I saw around me that day.

The third day I held in my hands a suitcase of great anger.  I kept thinking back on the day Erin sat in my office and announced she was not going to participate in our transitional graduate program, but instead she was going home to take care of her mother and brother who needed her.  Someone had given her mother the money it took to turn the electricity back on in Erin's house, and that was all it took to spring her back like a bungee cord to the worst place she could possibly go.  (Erin's mother and brother are now incarcerated so the sheriff's department escorted them both to the funeral home.)

"Erin, I'm telling you.  Please listen to me.  I have sat here with many women through the years who also wanted to return to their old environments and not one of them was successful doing that.  Not one."

In that tiny, baby voice of hers, with a smile of confidence on her face, Erin said, "Well then, I will be the first."

Erin was the first, but not for that.  Even though I can't stand to hear condolences that begin with "At least...", I found myself trying to get some kind of comfort in the fact that at least she was the first we had lost due to drug related circumstances, which was remarkable considering we had served hundreds of women struggling with addiction.  However, this staggering statistic brought absolutely no comfort and felt quite empty.

My next suitcase held great sorrow.  It was the heaviest suitcase so far and I'm still holding it today, although it's slowly getting lighter.  In fact, it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I realized I had gone an entire day without unexpectedly bursting into tears - the kind where you find a quiet place to cry out loud.  Erin's tragic death at the young age of twenty-three, and the impact it will have on her children, has had a profound effect on me.

Months ago, well before I knew anything like this was on the horizon, I got an unexpected email from a professor at Texas Tech.  Unbeknownst to me, she had been using Blue Monarch for several years as an example of a non-profit doing recovery right.  She asked if I would speak to her class of seniors who were going into the field of recovery.  We planned to do this via Skype and I began keeping a list of Ten Things I Wish I Had Known, which quickly turned into twenty.

All of a sudden one weekend, I felt God was telling me, "You need to go there in person.  You need to be there."  I had never been to Lubbock, Texas, the home of Texas Tech, and when I looked online to see if it was obvious why God would want to send me there, I can't say anything jumped out at me.  But I contacted the professor and said, "If it's all the same to you, I think I will come speak to your class in person."  She seemed really excited and as soon as I made my travel arrangements I felt great peace about my decision.

After Erin's death, however, I realized my trip to Texas Tech was going to conflict with Erin's memorial service.  Maybe I needed to reschedule or cancel my trip.

Suddenly it became clear to me why I needed to go.  I had the opportunity to talk to a room full of compassionate people who were going into the field of recovery.  What better way to honor Erin's life than to empower people who were joining our army to fight the ugly world of addiction!

With a heavy heart, as Erin's memorial was taking place back at home, I made sure the students in front of me would know how to spell Erin's name and remember her face.  I wanted them to know that the people they will one day serve are very real.  I described Erin's life and the trials she experienced as a young child, finding herself as the primary caregiver for her younger brother at the age of eight.  I shared Erin's childhood stories of how desperately she longed for her parents to do the ordinary things other parents did - and I told of how she learned to do those same things for her own children while she was at Blue Monarch.

I showed the class the staggering chart Erin made that illustrated how multiple people on one side of her family tree had died from suicide, and multiple people on the other side had been murdered.  And until the results from her autopsy come back, we won't know which side of the family tree her death will belong. 

I described how Erin arrived at Blue Monarch without custody of her two boys.  And then I shared the beautiful memories she made with her children when they were reunited and how much their relationships grew during such an impressionable time in her boys' young, little lives.  I talked about the rich experience her children had as they had the chance to grow and thrive in a healthy environment and Christian home.  How our farm provided a place for her children to just be kids instead of worrying about grownup problems at such a tender age.

Then I felt compelled to share with the class one of the most important lessons God has taught me - that our job is to serve, not fix.  Love, not judge.  It was important for them to know that the services they provide may have an impact down the road that they may not even see.  I knew there would come a time when these students would question whether they were really making a difference in the ugly world of addiction.

And there it was.  That right there was why the last suitcase was so heavy.  How do we experience something like this without questioning whether we are really making a difference?  I found myself asking this question over and over as I grasped for answers.  However, I got the answers to my own question from Erin, herself.

Stuck away in a box with similar letters from previous residents, I found the ones from Erin that described how much she had gained at Blue Monarch and all the reasons she wished she had not left when she did.  Over and over she described the relationship with Jesus she had developed while she was here.  She even drew me a picture of Jesus.  "I'm not much of an artist but this is my first time ever trying to draw Jesus.  I'd like you to have it."  The greatest blessing of all was the change in Erin's soul!

However, I read through all Erin's letters to see if there was anything else that would help me feel we had made a lasting difference.  And then I found one more thing...

From a jail cell Erin had written, "When I spoke to my son, you know what he wanted to talk about?  Normally it's always been 'Mommy why you in jail?  Why was you bad?  When you coming back?' - all bad things, but he didn't ask any of that.  The only thing he said was, 'Mommy, I want to go back to Blue Monarch.' "

Sometimes I feel the biggest challenge we face in what we do is not even the drugs.  It's the extremely intense pull of what's familiar.  It's typically what they knew as children.  So even though it may be dysfunctional, chaotic, and harmful, they are naturally drawn to it like a magnet.  Therefore, we want to become THAT.  We want to become that same powerful, pulling force for the children we serve.

We want the life we provide at Blue Monarch to be what our children spring back to like a bungee cord.  We want to be what is familiar to them, what they long for even as adults.  For Erin, even though her story did not turn out the way we wanted, she gave her children a beautiful gift by providing them wonderful memories of a life they may have otherwise never known, and one she never had herself as a child.  A place where the world is safe, people are nurtured and loved, the future is bright and full of hope.  Erin planted those seeds in her children and we must pray they will continue to grow.

A few days ago I got this in the mail.  It was lots of nice notes from the students at Texas Tech.  My goal was for just one student to make a difference in someone's life because of Erin's story.  But after reading what some of them had to say, I can see that Erin planted many seeds there too - way over in West Texas.  

Thank you, Erin, for sharing your life - and death - with us because I believe God found a way to turn your darkness into light for many others.  And that's a suitcase I'm honored to carry for a long, long time.

CLICK HERE to read an earlier post about God's message to serve, not fix.  Love, not judge.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spring Break Gone Way Bad...

Occasionally there were vivid reminders that I was an unconventional single mom, and my daughter was living an unconventional childhood.  Plus, I didn't always make the wisest choices.  For instance, there was the time she and I were coming back from Thanksgiving in Peavine, Georgia, when I discovered a tattoo parlor that was open.  Imagine.  Tattoos on Thanksgiving Day.  I whipped into the parking lot and the two of us went in the door.  At the time I was a full-time artist, selling my work at a highly esteemed gallery in Nashville.  My work was mixed media construction and people were always my subject matter.  I was working on a piece for an upcoming show that had a person with a tattoo and I needed to research some different designs.

So Mary Susan and I took our seats in the seedy, crowded waiting room so I could peruse the catalogues of tattoos.  There seemed to be a guy in charge so I asked him a question but he quickly interrupted me and said, "Lady, I don't know nothing about nothing.  They just pay me to sit here and make sure there ain't no trouble."  Okay, well, if they have to pay someone to do that, perhaps we shouldn't be here.  So we left.  I decided the tattoo parlor was probably not a good idea.

For most of Mary Susan's young life it was just the two of us on our horse farm.  I wore fringe way too much, and for a brief time I seriously considered living in a tee-pee (which I didn't realize at the time had my daughter completely mortified.)  We had a zebra named, Zelvis (Elvis with a "Z"), a couple of llamas, and the Budweiser Clydesdales stayed with us when they traveled through the area.  So yeah, it probably wasn't the most normal childhood.

This was never so apparent, though, as when I came up with an idea for Mary Susan's spring break one year.  I thought it was an excellent educational field trip for a first-grader.  This time I was working on a piece of art about women in a holding cell, and I wanted to see the inside of an actual jail cell to study how it was constructed.

Since my brother was a game warden, he offered to take me to his local county jail.  Great.  I would turn that trip into a spring break outing for Mary Susan and kill two birds with one stone.  Being a small county jail, I made jokes about going to visit the "Mayberry jail" - confident it was perfectly harmless.  

After being shown a small empty cell, I asked the captain if I could see the larger holding cell instead.  "Well, there are some men in there, but if it's okay with you, it's okay with me."

What could possibly go wrong?  After all, Mary Susan and I were with two guys carrying guns.  So sure, let's go see it.

With drawing pad and pencil in hand, we approached the holding cell and there were five men sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall.  I turned to the captain and asked, "So, if you have women in here, are they allowed to keep their jewelry on?"

"Absolutely not.  They aren't allowed to keep anything they can use to hurt themselves or anybody else."  I quickly learned this was wrong.

At that very moment, Guy Number One said, "Hey, aren't you going to do something about this guy?"  He motioned toward Guy Number Two sitting next to him, who had a blanket across his lap and was looking a little pale.  The first guy then reached over and yanked the blanket off his neighbor's lap.  The inmate had slit both wrists and was sitting in a pool of blood.  Holy cow.

Our little trip to the Mayberry jail immediately turned into a nightmarish scene.  The captain rushed us to his office, jerked some towels from a filing cabinet, and ran back to the cell while yelling for someone to call an ambulance.  The place was turned upside down and our spring break field trip was over.  Surprisingly, Mary Susan didn't seem particularly moved by the incident so I was hopeful she wouldn't be scarred for life.  Again - probably wasn't a good idea.

The following Monday, I was concerned whether Mary Susan would share this terrible story with her teacher and classmates.  Asking her not to would just make it seem worse than it already was.  She typically used good judgement even as a small child - she'd know to keep it to herself.

That afternoon when I picked her up, I hurriedly asked, "Did you happen to tell anyone what happened at the jail?"

"Oh, yeah!  And they LOVED it!"

I immediately turned the car around and knew I'd have to somehow explain it to her teacher.  When I found her, I expressed how I really didn't expect anything like that to happen, how I actually thought the trip would be harmless - but I could tell by the look on her face I wasn't ever going to win her over.  She was completely disgusted with me as a mother and I was beginning to agree with her.

"Well, this is the problem.  She didn't just tell us about it.  She explained to the class that if you are serious about killing yourself, you do it like this (and she motioned a cutting motion on her wrist), and not like this."  (She motioned a perpendicular cutting motion.)  And then I remembered that's what the captain had said as he rushed us to the office, so even amidst the chaos Mary Susan had taken it all in.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I replayed all the teacher's critical remarks in my head and suddenly it hit me.  Was she going to call the Department of Children's Services and have my precious child removed?  I went into a complete and total panic.  I realize now that this was probably not even a possibility.  But at the time, it felt like a real one and I can't describe the level of fear I felt.  I immediately imagined a total stranger showing up at my home and taking Mary Susan away to someplace I wouldn't know where.  I imagined the fear she would feel - the trauma it would cause for both of us.  I could go on and on as my imagination ran wide open down that dark trail.  For weeks I feared I would lose my child who meant more to me than anyone on the planet.

Whereas my own experience gave me just a tiny, little glimpse into what our moms must feel, this is something many of our mothers have actually experienced firsthand.  They saw their children pulled from them, they saw the frightened looks on their faces, they felt their fear and uncertainty, and then they lived the lingering, devastating loss as they blamed themselves for all of it.

This is where we cross over into some touchy territory.  Most of our mothers have lost custody of their children because of their own actions.  Their own poor choices.  Maybe it was drug abuse, perhaps even neglect.  So even though many people won't say this out loud, they often wonder, "How could they have done those things if they truly loved their children?"

Well, if there's one thing I've learned over the past fourteen years, it's that you can't measure someone else's love for another.  I can tell you from what I've seen with my own two eyes, these mothers DO love their children.  Addiction makes people do things that many of us can't ever understand.  Sometimes it takes getting clean before the enormity of their actions really hit home.  But that's where Blue Monarch comes in.

I have seen women weep, wail, and appear to be in complete physical pain over the separation from their children.  These mothers go to bed each night wondering how their children are doing.  Are they safe?  Are they happy?  Will they remember me?  Are they ever going to forgive me?  Are they calling someone else "Mommy"?

Have you ever missed someone so badly that your heart literally hurt in your chest?  Has the pain been so extreme that you walk around just looking for a spot that will make you feel better and you can't find one?  Well, that's something we see almost daily here.

Blue Monarch has a reputation for being a place where families are reunited and restored.  That's a tedious and lengthy process but over 250 children have reestablished a relationship with their mothers through our program and God's tremendous grace.  We have seen absolute miracles take place!  I remember one mother who was just inches away from losing her parental rights forever, but we actually left the meeting with her child.  We had totally underestimated God's grace and power because we had to run to Wal-Mart for a car seat.  

But sadly, not all stories like this have a happy ending.  Occasionally we have a mother who does all the right things, jumps through all the same hoops, and is still not reunited with her child.  I can't imagine how difficult that must be to return to Blue Monarch and continue living in community with other moms who did get their children back and have the wonderful privilege of loving on them any time they want.

There's a song playing on the radio right now by Hillary Scott.  The name of it is "Thy Will".  The first time I heard it, I immediately recognized the pain in her voice and lyrics.  I thought, "That's got to be the pain of losing a child."  Sure enough, I later learned that the artist was referring to the loss of a child through miscarriage and was desperately trying to understand God's will in her painful situation, yet continue to pray, "Thy will be done."

We are accustomed to celebrating stories with happy endings around here.  We blast them on Facebook and love to share reunions of mothers and children.  But today I want to lift up the amazing women whose stories don't end like that. And this is why.

I think the bravest prayer of all is, "Thy will be done."  Think about it.  It means that you are willing to accept whatever the outcome is because you trust God to do what's best - even when it's not what you want.  And this is what we see some of our hurting mothers have the courage to do.  Quite frankly, when it comes to my child, I have to wonder if I would have the courage to do the same.  Even in their greatest pain and deepest disappointment, these courageous mothers lift up their hands in praise, and with tears streaming down their faces, they offer their children to God and pray, "Thy will be done."

These are the very mothers who are the easiest to judge.  Despite their best efforts, they are still not able to reunite with their children.  But in many ways, they should be our greatest examples because their ability to turn their children completely over to God shows faith that is beautiful and supernatural.

Lord, I ask you to abundantly bless the mothers who have the courage to pray the bravest prayer of all, "Thy will be done."  Please show them there is light ahead even though it feels so dark at the moment.  I pray that you will bless them for their tremendous faith in the midst of their greatest pain and loss.  Amen 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sorry, but some people need to feed pigs

This was the early Saturday morning routine that began in second grade and continued until I went off to college.

Without knocking, I would enter the front door of my piano teacher's very large, dark, historic Civil War home in downtown Franklin, Tennessee.  Immediately the ammonia smell of over thirty Siamese cats would take my breath away.  Past the massive, somewhat depressing tapestries on the walls and dark oversized furniture, I would make my way to the grand piano in the "pah-luh", take a seat, and begin playing.  Cats would wrap around my legs and sometimes crawl across the keyboard swishing their tails under my nose.

Eventually Miss Mary would appear dressed in a shirtwaist dress, stockings with pumps, typically wearing pearls around her neck with matching ear bobs.  Her snow-white hair was evenly divided into two buns, one over each ear, both carefully contained with white hairnets.  She would also have on a little too much rouge (yes, the real thing) and lipstick that wandered outside the wrinkled lines.

Picture I drew of Miss Mary years ago
Miss Mary would approach the piano clinking a dainty cup and saucer of strong instant coffee, and she would usually have biscuit crumbs in the whiskers on her chin.  Miss Mary had never married and lived alone the entire time I knew her - except for one crazy summer when she rented a room upstairs to a colorful girl who had a constant flow of "gentleman callers", which Miss Mary mistook as the sign of a popular young lady with lots of friends.  Right...

One Saturday morning there was a strange, new sound, much different from the usual meow of a Siamese.  It sounded like a baby crying, but I couldn't imagine anyone asking Miss Mary to babysit.  Finally, I asked her what was making that sound?

"It's my new cat!" she said.  "He wandered into the yard and I'm keeping him in the kitchen until he can adjust to his new home."  I really wanted to see this cat making such a strange sound so she agreed to let me peek through the door as long as I didn't let him escape.  The other thirty-something cats were clearly upset about this new family member and were darting around the house in a sort of fearful, chaotic frenzy.  I soon learned why.

Much to my horror, when I cracked open the door, there in the middle of her linoleum kitchen table stood an enormous wild bobcat!  It arched its back and showed its fangs when it saw me and I couldn't help but notice Miss Mary had somehow put a rhinestone collar on its neck.  The kitchen was completely destroyed as if a wild animal had been turned loose in there.  Oh yeah, that was exactly what had happened. 

Miss Mary's complete household had been turned upside down by her attempt to help this one animal that clearly didn't want help.

 I slammed the door shut.  "Miss Mary, that's a wild bobcat!"

"Oh no, he's just having a hard time adjusting to his new home.  He'll be fine in a few days."  She said this with a curious level of confidence.

All week I wondered how Miss Mary and the wild bobcat were getting along.  And for once I was excited to go to my lesson.

The door was unlocked as usual so I carefully stepped inside and walked to the piano, listening for any sign of the bobcat - or Miss Mary.  Nothing.  The only cats I saw were quietly cowering behind the furniture.  Was it possible the bobcat killed Miss Mary?  For a few minutes, I have to confess, I wondered if perhaps this could mean the end of my Saturday morning lessons?  But then, of course, I immediately felt guilty for even thinking it.

Finally Miss Mary appeared, not from the kitchen as usual, but from her bedroom, which I had never seen and was such a mystery.  She looked like she had been in a terrible wreck.  Her little white buns were hanging from their sockets, her pale thin-skinned arms were covered in deep red gashes, her silk brocade dress looked like she had slept in it, and she even had a black eye.

She reported that her new cat "never did adjust to his new home" and she had to let him go.  She had loved him, cared for him, fed him, showered him with gifts, and in the end, he didn't appreciate any of it.  She seemed completely bewildered.

So how does this story have anything to do with Blue Monarch?

Clearly the bobcat didn't belong in Miss Mary's house anyway, but her reaction to this bobcat is so similar to the many calls we get from folks who are desperately trying to help someone they love, someone who is struggling with addiction and poor life choices.

"Why does she keep doing this?  I pay her bills, I take care of her children, and I gave her a car...I've done everything for her!"  They love this family member so much they are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes - even if it jeopardizes the peace and safety of everyone else in the home.  They allow their homes to turn into complete and total chaos because in their minds, this sacrifice shows how much they love this person.  They insist on keeping the bobcat in the kitchen, despite the fact that the needs of the rest of the family - and probably even their own needs - are greatly suffering.

This is so, so hard to accept - but sometimes the best love one can show is to give that individual the freedom to fall.  Even the prodigal son didn't figure things out until he had lost all support, been on his own, and lived with the consequences of his choices.  When he wanted to leave, his father didn't go running after him or bribe him with gifts.  He let him go.  This son didn't come to his senses until he got so low, he had to feed pigs to survive.  

I realize this sounds terrible - but some people simply need to feed pigs.  It's possible that the longer we protect them from doing so, the more we actually delay their recovery, not help.  After all, if we could just have the courage to trust God, then let go and let them fall, it's quite possible they'll eventually land safely in His arms.  Sometimes reaching this level of despair is what it takes for us to finally turn to Him for help. 

In fact, you know the part of the story where the father runs to meet his prodigal son who has returned with a new heart?  Well, we get to see that happen here!  We see the courageous women we serve, run to our Heavenly Father with renewed spirits and open hearts - and He runs toward them with open arms as if they never left.  And I can tell you - it's a beautiful, beautiful sight that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Psalms 40:1-3

Click here to read an earlier post on this topic:  A Beautiful Place Called Rock Bottom    


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Racist Interrupted

It was my very first day of high school as a 9th grader in Franklin, Tennessee.  And it was the very first day for integration in my county.  The year was 1971.

Neither school was big enough for all the students, so the oddly curious solution was for us to spend half a day at the white school and half a day at the black school.  In the middle of the day we were bused back and forth to switch places.

This plan was insanely inefficient.  For most of us, it meant two lunch periods back to back while this time consuming craziness took place.

After my first lunch, I got on the bus for the black school but unfortunately, all my friends went the first half of the day.  I quickly discovered the students were not evenly divided between black and white.  (Wasn't that the whole point?)  The bus was already packed, standing room only - and I was the only white student on the entire bus.  Wow.

Not knowing what to expect, I found a safe place to stand behind the bus driver who was also black.  I tried to look cool, like I hadn't even noticed my present circumstances.  Truth was, I was pretty scared.  Isn't it interesting how we often fear what's simply unfamiliar?

The only other school I had ever attended had just two black students in the entire school - Georgia, who was in my class, and her brother who was in another, also alone.  As I looked across the mass of unfamiliar black faces on the bus, I couldn't help but imagine that Georgia must have felt the very same way I did in that moment.  No wonder she never said a word and always looked so scared.  As I look back now, I'm ashamed I didn't do more to make her feel comfortable.  She must have been miserable in our all white school.

Gripping the pole behind the driver, I steadied my feet best I could as we began our journey to the part of town I had only heard about.  My blond hair was long and straight and the girls around me were absolutely fascinated with it.  As a matter of fact, I was pretty fascinated with theirs as well.  How did they get it to grow in that perfectly round "fro"?  

All of a sudden, without asking, a group of girls began running their fingers through my hair.  They squealed, "Come feel this!  Feel it!"  Well, I didn't like it one bit.  This had to stop.  (My personal bubble is quite large.)

When I'd had enough, I flipped my head around and immediately felt my hair getting jerked and pulled in all directions.  Oh my word, I'm being attacked!  It turned into quite a ruckus - kids yelling and laughing while my hair was yanked out by the handfuls.  Everything was a complete blur as my head got violently pulled back and forth, back and forth, and I was in a lot of pain.  I screamed for help but couldn't imagine who would even come to my rescue.

Suddenly all the violence stopped but not the laughing.  I grabbed my head and slowly faced my attackers, only to discover no one had even touched me.  What?  Apparently, when I twirled my head around to stop them from feeling my hair, I had actually gotten it stuck in the bus driver's stupid fan!  It had gotten whipped into a massive ball of knots.  Fortunately, one of the nice girls helped untangle my hair from the fan that now seemed to possess a good bit of my hair.  There was an enormous rat's nest in the back of my head.  No wonder everyone was laughing.  I'm sure it was hilarious for everyone on the bus but I was humiliated - and yet relieved at the same time.

As I tried to regain some kind of dignity, which was near impossible under the circumstances, I straightened my short little skirt, pulled up my knee socks, patted down my hair best I could, and marched into the black school for the first time, which I couldn't help but notice was behind a tall, metal fence.  Was this to keep people in or out?  (I later learned it was both.)  

The place was shocking.  I could see right away that the black school wasn't nearly as nice as the white school.  But how did this happen?  Didn't the same people pay for both?  It was filthy and needed lots of repair.  It didn't seem right, that's for sure.

As the year went on, I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time through someone else's eyes, and much of it was painful.  Many things were clearly not fair or equal.  And even though there were uncertain, new experiences during that first year of high school in an integrated school (or schools) it taught me some lessons I will never forget, and quite frankly, some lessons I needed to learn.

I've thought a lot about this experience recently.  And this is why:

As I've reflected over our past year at Blue Monarch, there were so many unexpected blessings and miracles.  After all, we expanded our campus with the construction of four beautiful cottages for our graduates.  This increased our population by 33%.  That's huge!  

But that's not all.

There were many remarkable miracles of transformation for our women and their children - countless, amazing things that you wouldn't think possible!  However, there's one specific thing that quickly rises to the top of the list when I think back on 2016.

Sadly, this is not a unique case, but we had a little boy with us last year whose father was involved in the Aryan Nation.  This man was quite vocal with his racist views and had passed these harmful prejudices along to his impressionable young son.  Even the mother wore Aryan Nation tattoos on her chest and at first, refused to open up to our counselor who is black.  (Thank you, Lord, for our counselor's patience, grace, and professionalism.)

But you know what happened over their time at Blue Monarch?  This little boy learned that we are all equal, that God loves each of us the same, and by the time he walked out our door, this sweet child no longer feared or hated people of color.
(Not the actual child)

And his mother?  Well, she eventually changed her own perspective and to this day, our counselor is the first person she turns to when she needs help.

In this day and time, when it's well beyond 1971 but we're still hearing daily news about racism, there is no way to know how differently this little boy might have turned out if he had not learned this critical lesson at an early age.  He may always be challenged through his ongoing exposure to people who feel otherwise, but I have to it possible that a future hate crime was perhaps stopped in its tracks because a little boy and his mother had the opportunity to come to Blue Monarch?  

We may not be able to fix racism, but I'm grateful we have a chance to chip away at it - one child, one mother at a time. 

But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.  1 John 2:11


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Little did I know...

If you would like to get the background of this story, you may want to read an earlier blog post:
A story too big to tell...

Dear Bob,

I have been composing a letter to you in my head throughout the year and planned to mail it before Christmas.  Little did I know you wouldn't be here to read it.  I can't possibly begin the New Year with this letter unfinished, so here it is.

Someone asked me recently what year stood out above all others for Blue Monarch?  That's easy.  It's 2016.  And that's because of you and Jacque.

I now keep a photograph of your beautiful wife on my desk.  It's not the best one I have of her, but it is a huge reminder that you just never know when an ordinary moment may turn into an extraordinary one. 

You see, this picture of Jacque was taken when she first visited Blue Monarch in 2010.  She came with a group of church folks at the invitation of her bowling buddy, Pat.  On that day, I'm sure I probably told the story of how Blue Monarch got started, described what we do to help mothers and their precious children recover from some pretty deep emotional wounds, and we might have asked one of our residents to share her personal story.  This routine we do quite often.  But something Jacque heard that day must have made quite an impression on her.  Little did I know this moment would dramatically affect our world six years later.

I also didn't realize when I received your unexpected email back in February, that by November we would mark a huge item off my bucket list and open four incredible cottages for our graduates, which would bear the names of your wife and four children - and immediately increase our population by a whopping 33%!

This year has been full of unexpected surprises.  But your passing was not a good surprise and although I thanked you many times, I wish I thanked you more when I had the chance.

Thank you for sharing your wife's passion for Blue Monarch.  I can't describe what it means for others to believe in our mission as we do, enough to invest their treasured resources.  Every gift, no matter how large or how small, means the world to us.  That's one of the reasons I love to get the mail out of the box myself - so I can cherish each one as it arrives.

I never told you this, but I found it amusing that you and Jacque frequently told me the same thing when the other was not around.  She would tell me that although she loved Blue Monarch, it was you who felt most passionately about it.  And then you would tell me the exact same thing about her.  I'm grateful you both cared about our mission so much.

Lynn, Robert, Susan, Bob, Kent and Beth
Even though you and Jacque discussed your tremendous plan before her death, you made it clear that you wanted to involve your four children in this gesture and the gift would actually come from them.  Thank you for passing your passion for Blue Monarch along to "The Sibs".  I am so grateful for their commitment to provide a beautiful place for our graduates to transition into the outside world.  And I also appreciate their vision for our cottages to be so unique they would serve as motivation for our residents to succeed.  The cottages are absolutely amazing, inside and out.  I've always said, "why do something ordinary when it can be extraordinary?"  Thankfully, your children - Kent, Lynn, Robert, and Beth - feel the same way!

Bob, your wife was an exceptional woman - no doubt, you know that.  I can't describe how much it meant for you to trust me with her memorial service we held in June along with the groundbreaking.  As I searched through hundreds of photographs I gradually gained a clearer picture of the remarkable life she lived with you, the strong values she instilled in your children, and why all of you wanted to honor her memory in such a special way.  Yes, she was an extraordinary mother - and now she's allowing others to become one.

There were several times you mentioned you were worried you might not live to see our WINGS Community completed, which always troubled me.  Other than the fact you were turning 89 in July, I didn't really understand your sense of urgency.  However, this was a determining factor as I interviewed potential builders.  If they couldn't begin right away, they were quickly voted off the island.  (Wasn't that one of Jacque's favorite shows?)

I think God dropped the perfect builder right in front of us for a reason.  The project went supernaturally fast!  "What?!  You need paint colors already?"  My word, we got four houses built in three and a half months.  Who does that?

But now we know why this project took on a life of its own.  I believe God wanted you to see the M. Jacqueline Peters WINGS Community finished before he called you home.  And only he knew that you would pass away just eleven days after you came to the Dedication Celebration, where you so tenderly handed keys to the first families moving in.  Little did we know...

What a legacy, Bob.  It's only been a little over a month since our first families moved into the beautiful cottages and already I'm seeing the enormous impact in so many areas of their lives.  Just imagine how that influence will grow in the many years to come.  I hope you're proud and feel the magnitude of a life well lived.

I love this picture of you leaving our Dedication to return to New Hampshire.  You look pleased, as I hope you were - and I love the fact you are still wearing your Blue Monarch name tag.  Yet another ordinary - yet enormously significant - moment that will live on my desk from now on, alongside Jacque's.

Bob, as this incredible year comes to an end, it's tempting to worry that we will never, ever have another year like this one.  After all, it was pretty unbelievable.  Not only did we enjoy this dream-come-true, insanely fun project, but our many supporters enthusiastically rallied around this venture and embraced it with us.  It was truly glorious.

However, you and Jacque have reminded me of something I must never forget:  It's important to treat even the most ordinary moments as if they have the potential to become extraordinary ones.  After all, little do we know...God may be using those commonplace moments and the people around us to do huge and powerful things one day - just like he so beautifully did through the two of you.

With much love and gratitude,

Lord, may we always be grateful for the ordinary moments that weave the tapestry of this extraordinary journey with you.  We ask for your abundant blessings in 2017 so we may best serve the courageous women and precious children who come to us seeking your help.

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" - 1 Corinthians 2:9

Click here to see the aerial documentation of the construction by Joe Marler of Dynamic Images: