From my front row seat

Thursday, September 29, 2016

My three miserable nights in jail

It's as if God said, "You know what?  I think you need to walk in her shoes for a while.  In fact, maybe for the next three nights."

God often speaks to me in my dreams.  Actually, the whole plan for Blue Monarch came to me in a powerful dream about twenty years ago - and just look at how that turned out!  But this dream I could have done without.

When my dream began, I was in jail getting booked for some crime - but for what?  It was a vivid, very realistic dream.  I had just undergone a humiliating body search, which left me feeling extremely embarrassed and violated.  The ink on my fingertips made me feel marked and branded.  I remember looking at my fingerprints and saying to myself, "Well, this is the only thing that proves I'm an individual because now I'm just a number."

I stood for a mug shot, holding my number in front of me while fighting back tears, and I immediately pictured my photo in the local paper where everyone I knew would see it.  I thought I just might throw up.  It even occurred to me that the numbers behind my head would tell the whole world how tall I was.  Not sure why that even mattered, but it felt like one more violation.

The.  Shame.  Was.  Unbearable.

Even though I didn't seem to have any kind of awareness of the crime I had committed, I can't describe the deep, intense humiliation and shame I felt.  Nothing I ever experienced even came close to it.  But this one moment somehow seemed to wipe out anything positive I had ever done in my life.  I saw how the officers looked at me with total indifference and then I realized I had become completely insignificant.  They were joking among themselves about something unrelated to my crisis and it hit me that this was just another day at the office for them while it felt like the end of my life for me.

Then I woke up in a cold sweat, relieved to discover I was at home in my own bed.  I spent the entire day sort of rattled and afraid that maybe my dream was a warning that I was about to get into some kind of trouble.  It was so real!  So I began paying much more attention to the speed limit and vowed to drive more safely - since that was the only thing I could think of that might get me into trouble.  Even speeding wouldn't get you arrested, though, unless you hurt someone so what was about to happen?

Unfortunately, the next night another dream picked up where the last one left off.  I was back in the jail and could smell that stale odor of too many bodies in an enclosed space with still air.  (It's an unpleasant smell that I've noticed lives at every jail I've ever visited while interviewing potential residents for Blue Monarch.  I've always wondered how folks working there avoid bringing it home with them on their clothes.)

They handed me the orange jumpsuit and "whites" that I had to wear and I could only imagine who and how many had worn them before me.  Clothing and creative style had always been important to me so handing my personal jewelry and belongings to someone to store in a paper bag seemed like the last hand-off of who I was.  Little by little, drip-by-drip, I was truly becoming a nobody.  A worthless nobody.

I was then taken to my cell, which I would share with a stranger, and right off the bat I realized there was no such thing as privacy anymore.  The nasty toilet was out in the open for the whole world to see.  At that point I actually wanted to be nobody and simply disappear.  I felt overwhelmingly empty and hopeless, and even crying didn't seem to make it better.  I couldn't get away from my terrible feelings.  I looked around and realized there was no place to go for comfort.

Then I woke up.

The fact I had this sort of dream two nights in a row was really unsettling.  Surely I was about to get arrested for something.  So I continued to watch the speed limit because that's all I knew to do.

Well, you guessed it.  The third night picked up right where the last dream left off.  Except this time the humiliation and shame accelerated to a whole other level.  

A group of us were lined up to go to court.  Our hands and feet were shackled together so even walking was embarrassing because it was impossible to do so with any kind of dignity, taking baby steps and lined up like cattle.

When we walked into court I was devastated and wanted to crawl into a hole.  I was especially embarrassed to be in public without any makeup, and my highlights were beginning to grow out leaving terrible dark roots.  (I know, I feel pretty shallow admitting it...)  The orange jumpsuit I was wearing was soiled - and from what, I was afraid to know.  The long-sleeved white t-shirt underneath was actually more of a dingy grey color, and my scratchy socks had holes in them that were visible in the oversized plastic shoes I was required to wear.

We paraded into the courtroom in single file and as I looked out across the room I immediately recognized people I knew - some were people I just happened to know from the community who looked shocked to see me.  Others were friends and family members who had expressions on their faces that were a complicated combination of disgust, anger, disappointment, hurt, grief, and even their own personal humiliation, which I knew I had caused.

There really aren't any words strong enough for what I felt.  The deep regret, the excruciating heartache, the agonizing shame, the anger toward myself, and the extreme hopelessness were so intense I thought I might pass out.  I cried and then struggled to wipe my eyes, which was hard to do with my hands connected to my feet, so I finally decided to let the tears just run down my face.  What difference did it make anyway?

Thankfully, at this point I woke up.  I sat on the edge of my bed just struggling to understand why I had been taken on this terrible journey over the past three nights.  What could it mean?  Please, Lord, what are you trying to tell me?  And please make it stop.

Truth is, as time passed and I was greatly relieved to see that my dreams were not prophetic, I realized they actually taught me a lot.  I've reflected back on them many times since then.  Some of the lessons were pretty obvious:  
  • God needed me to really feel how impossible it seems when the journey out of hopelessness and despair looks straight up and you're standing at the very bottom.  That road is extremely long and extremely hard. 
  • He needed me to feel the level of shame our women experience so I would know how important it is for them to receive constant encouragement and praise over even the smallest accomplishments.  Words matter. 
  • I needed to feel how tempting it was to become hardened and indifferent in order to avoid appearing weak and vulnerable.  So we must be patient.
But this is the lesson I didn't get until today:

In my dreams I never knew what crime I had committed, which has always been a little puzzling to me.  After all, wouldn't that affect the circumstances and outcome?  So today as I prayed for further understanding of these powerful and graphic dreams, I revisited this question.   Suddenly God pointed something out to me, which I now see is the most valuable lesson of all:

He doesn't care what the crime was!

What is important to God is that we understand we are new creations through Christ and that the old self is gone.  And THAT is what we must never forget to teach the amazing women we serve.  Only then does the shame truly go away.  After all, in God's eyes no one is a nobody.  No one.  Not ever.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;  the old is gone, the new has come!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.                2 Corinthians 4:17-19

Thursday, August 25, 2016

"My Greatest Teacher Was a Meth Cook"

Laurie Anderson was the very first resident at Blue Monarch - and first graduate.  Laurie loved to boast, "There will never, ever be another FIRST graduate of Blue Monarch!"  And she was so right.

The news of Laurie's recent death from a heart attack hit me harder than I would have expected, and I believe it's because Laurie was symbolic of so many "firsts" in this Blue Monarch journey.  I had the great honor of speaking at her memorial service last week and this allowed me to really examine how deeply Laurie impacted my life.

When we first got our beautiful property in 2003, I received a frantic call from a mother of four children.  She was desperately looking for help.  At the time I was trying to run Blue Monarch as I would any other business and couldn't see a way to help her until we had our staff and program completely nailed down.  So I turned her away.

However, for two weeks this mother stayed on my mind.  I finally tried to track her down and discovered that within those two weeks this woman had surrendered all four children to others who were willing to adopt them - and disappeared.  My heart was broken.

I decided then and there that too many huge things happened very quickly to the population we were going to serve - so the next woman who called was not getting turned down, no matter how unprepared we were.

That next woman was Laurie Anderson, known as the "Betty Crocker of Meth" to some, and this reputation had landed her in jail.  She had been released and was looking for a new start. 

This is a photo of her interview at Blue Monarch and in looking back I have to wonder if I was making up the questions as I went along?  I'm not sure.  What I do remember, though, was that I had never heard such tragic stories in my entire life.  One story I remember in particular was of her being left in a ditch to die for several days after being severely beaten.  There were lots of other disturbing stories - one right after the other.  I immediately realized I was in over my head, but yes, we were taking her anyway.

The day Laurie moved in, I watched her from my office window as she strolled the beautiful grounds admiring her new home.  I got an immediate rush of "Oh my word!  I am responsible for this person!  What have I done?" 

I keep a photo of this moment on my desk because God quickly pointed out to me, "This is my plan.  Not yours."  And I've discovered the world is always less scary when I can remember this very important fact.

Truth was, even though Laurie came to Blue Monarch for help and it was exactly what she needed at that point in her life, God also knew I desperately needed a teacher.  I knew absolutely nothing about the people our organization was designed to serve and I'm sure Laurie figured that out right away.  I had a Fine Arts degree, for crying out loud!  

What I learned from Laurie, though, became the very foundation of what we do and helped to shape what we have become.  

Here are just a few of the valuable things Laurie taught me:
  • The world of drug abuse and what it does to destroy families - and especially how it impacts the children in the middle of the chaos.
  • To not make eye contact with people who are currently using meth so I don't get caught up in their crazy paranoia.
  • The world of crime and law enforcement - how to work with probation officers, judges, and how to navigate a jail interview.
  • The different kinds of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse and how it causes so much damage to one's emotional health and self-worth.
  • How to protect myself from a manipulative population and to have greater discernment regarding the people around me.  In other words, she taught me "street smarts" that has really come in handy through the past thirteen years.
  • What happens when harmful destructive cycles of behavior are allowed to continue generation after generation.
I watched Laurie grieve the hideous, suspicious deaths of her mother and little brother, which taught me how injustice comes in all shapes and sizes for some and not for others.

But while I observed Laurie's steadfast courage and determination as she recovered from a life of abuse and addiction, she also taught me volumes about forgiveness, emotional healing, and most importantly, faith in God.  Her love of Christ was tangible and she gave Him the glory for her healing.

I've always thought one of life's greatest tragedies would be to get to the end of your life, look back, and see that you haven't accomplished anything significant.  That is certainly not true for Laurie.

Laurie raised two amazing children, Robbie and Becca.  Thankfully they have not repeated the cycle of drug abuse in their family and are both vibrant, wonderful young adults.  Laurie has a beautiful granddaughter who only knew her grandmother as completely wonderful.  Laurie was a devoted daughter and actually restored that relationship while she was at Blue Monarch.

But this is what Laurie probably never knew.  She impacted the lives of HUNDREDS of women who followed in her footsteps.  She paved the way for many, many women who showed up on our doorstep with the same hurts, disappointments, and tragedies that Laurie did.  But because of Laurie, we were better equipped to help them.

Through the years our residents have asked me many times, "How is your first graduate?"  They ask as if they are afraid of the answer.

I have always been very proud to say that our first graduate was successful and doing well!  Then I show them the photo on my desk of the day Laurie graduated from our program.  Laurie always said, "Miss Susan, the Holy Spirit must have been with us in this photo because just look at the incredible glow!"  I would have to agree.  It was an amazing, triumphant day - not just for Laurie, but also for the Kingdom of God.

As I visited with Robbie and Becca at the service last week, it was moving to discover the tremendous impact Blue Monarch had on their lives, even though the time Laurie was with us was very brief in her life of fifty years.

Robbie shared, "Mom's time at your program was the first time she was able to be a real mom.  Even though I was entering college at the time, it was the first time she was ever involved in my school."

One time many years ago Laurie told me that if it weren't for Blue Monarch she would probably be dead.  At the time I thought she was being a little dramatic.  But last week Becca told me, "If it weren't for Blue Monarch, we wouldn't have had all these extra years with Momma.  So thank you for what you do for families."  

And then Robbie told me, "If it weren't for Blue Monarch, I don't think our mom would have made it another year."  So maybe Laurie was not exaggerating after all.

Thank you, Lord, for taking the darkness of Laurie's life and using it to bring light to so many.  And thank you for sending the perfect teacher to partner with me on this amazing journey.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Oh Lord, please don't call me...

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church and my family was there every single time the doors were open.  Even a huge load of homework didn't get you out of Wednesday night services.  By golly, we were going anyway.

We also attended revivals once or twice a year, sometimes in a large tent.  I remember Brother Burns in particular, one of our visiting evangelists.  He was a hell fire and brimstone, fist-raising, slobber-slinging preacher who scared the living daylights out of me.  We were all going to hell from what I could tell.  Every single one of us had terrible sinful thoughts, God knew what they were because he could read your dirty, filthy mind, and we were all doomed.  Doooomed.

One thing I figured out early, though, was that you sure didn't want to get "God's calling".  My word, it was something you couldn't anticipate or guard yourself against.  It was something that just came out of nowhere and boom!  You had been called by God to do something - and most likely, it was something you didn't want to do.

So as a child I came up with a plan.  Best I could tell, I needed to find a safe zone where I could stay out of eternal fire - and not have to go to Africa as a missionary, either.  Those poor folks always looked tired and wore hand-me-down clothes that looked like they had gone out of style years ago.  For sure, it was safer not to make eye contact with God, lest he see you and then call you to do something awful.

This plan worked pretty well until I was in my forties.  I felt pretty sure God hadn't really noticed me, but I trusted him not to turn me away when I showed up at the pearly gates.  Yep, I was a C-student Christian.  Just enough to get by and I was in the safe zone.

Then the day came when God did call me.  I knew, without a doubt, that he was asking me to put Blue Monarch together, just as he had revealed to me in a powerful dream years before.  You've got to be kidding me.  Despite all my efforts to fly under the radar, he found me anyway.  Crap.

Clearly there had been a terrible mistake.  I couldn't imagine, with all my mediocre spirituality, that he would ask me to put together a ministry like Blue Monarch.  What was he thinking?  My word, I hadn't even been to church in almost seven years.  Surely lots of people must have turned him down, which was not a good sign.

Truth is, I felt enormously unworthy.  Unequipped.  Unqualified.  And pretty scared.  In fact, I cried about it for three whole days (my version of the belly of the fish) because I felt so totally incapable of such a mission - or yes, calling.  I was really struggling.  "Why me, Lord, why me?  Please, no."

That's when Mary Susan, my seventeen-year-old daughter who had always been light years ahead of me spiritually, said something that changed everything.  She said, "Mommy, you can tell God no.  He won't love you any less than if you said yes."  Really? 

Well, this changed everything.  I thought, how could I say no to a God like that?

So I gave up the struggle, prayed my heart out, cried with overwhelming humility, took an enormous leap of faith, and accepted his call - with one condition:  that I would never, ever have to speak in public.  (Two weeks later I was in front of a Rotary Club and thought I would die.)

Many times I have thought about what I would have missed if I had said no and gone my own way.  Just this past week was a great example. 

I saw a woman, who was addicted and living under a bridge just a year ago, burst into tears when she learned she had passed her high school equivalency exams and would be able to attend college. 

I saw another woman, who never thought she'd have her precious son again, regain custody of him and weep with joy. 
And while eating my lunch one day, a young boy thanked me because he had prayed every night for four years to be with his mother again, and now through Blue Monarch, his prayers had been answered.  That's just the first three that come to mind!  I have thirteen years of stories like that.

Truth is, the life I could have chosen for myself, would have fallen way short of what God allowed me to experience "from my front row seat" at the greatest show on earth.  I see his miracles every single day in the lives of the courageous women and children we serve.  And I see his mighty hand in the way he provides for our ministry because he loves them so much.  His calling was not something to run from - it was a beautiful, beautiful gift!  A privilege, and an honor.

This issue of God's calling has been on my mind a lot lately because of something my preacher said recently.  We were studying the book of Jonah (with whom I can relate...) and he said, "Some callings are not transferable.  Some things God will not get someone else to do."

Of course my first thought was, how do you know that, Pastor Frank?  But it did cause me to start thinking back on God's calling for my own life.  I think I always took great comfort in thinking that if I had turned God down he would have simply gone to the next name on the list.  But what if there wasn't a next name on the list?  What if that calling was not transferable?  In Romans 11:29 it says, "for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable."

God's call on my life made no sense to me at the time.  But it does now.  You see, I think I fit the job description perfectly.  God has shown us over and over that he loves to call the unworthy, the unequipped, and the unqualified - and I happened to be all three.  But the truth is, the only real your answer.  Yes.

"God doesn't call the equipped.  He equips the called."  Henry T. Blackaby

Side note:  Through the years, as I have told the story of Blue Monarch to many groups, it's often that individuals will come to me in tears afterwards and describe how they feel God wants them to do something but they are struggling with their decision.  (They are in the belly of the fish.)  If you are one of those, I'm afraid you're missing out on some tremendous blessings.  Try saying yes. 


Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Story Too Big to Tell

We’ve had an amazing thing happen at Blue Monarch and every time I sit down to write about it, I’m so overcome with emotion, I can’t even put my feelings into words.  But I’ve waited too long.  There’s no way I can do this story justice but this is how this blessing has looked through my eyes and I want you to feel like you were there with us.  So here goes…

Last year was the first year I didn’t reach my fundraising goal.  In years past this would have put me into quite a state of panic.  However, I had a sense of peace about this unexpected shortfall and continued to pray for abundance.  For many years I foolishly prayed for only what we needed, but last year as a staff we shifted all our prayers to those of abundance – not necessarily monetary abundance, but abundant blessings. 

Before the end of the year I had a significant dream in which God showed me the campus of Blue Monarch from the air, he lifted off something like a lid, and when he did, magnificent bright light burst out of it and filled the sky.  I felt he was telling me not to worry, that 2016 was going to be a great year and in my own words, “bust wide open!”  Boy, was he right…

On an otherwise ordinary Friday afternoon in February, I checked my email before I left my office for the weekend.  I was excited to see that I had an email from this guy, one of my favorite donors, Bob Peters, who was living in New Hampshire with his wife, Jacque.  Or so I thought.

Bob informed me that Jacque had passed away, which I was really disappointed and sad to hear.  She had given us her organ before they moved and I am reminded of her every single day when I walk past it.

“Jacque was a wonderful loving wife, mother of four great children, grandmother to nine up-and-coming young people plus three great grandchildren. Naturally, we, her family, would like to honor her memory in some meaningful way. One compelling idea is to do something in conjunction with Blue Monarch to which she felt an immediate connection since we first learned about your efforts to help mothers and their children get out of the clutches of abuse and addiction and back into mainstream society.”

Bob went on to describe how he and his children wanted to dedicate a playground to her since she cared so much about physical fitness.  I thought this was an awesome idea!  He had me at this point because I was so excited to honor her in this way.  Yay!  A new playground!  What a great way to end the week.

But then in the last paragraph, Bob went on to describe how he and his four children wanted to donate a “good portion of Jacque’s estate” to Blue Monarch.  And he put the dollar amount in parentheses. 

Okay – this is a moment I will never forget.  In fact, this goes right up there with the men walking on the moon.  My first thought was that my imagination was running completely amuck.  I remembered as a child hearing about a neighbor who had a “nervous breakdown” and since it happened to her in the grocery store, I assumed it was this uncontrollable thing that could happen to you at any moment – at any place.  Was this my own nervous breakdown?  Was I imagining things?

I sat there and stared at the number.  I counted the zeros several times.  And this was the amazing thing.  No matter how I moved the commas around, it was still incredible. 

For fear this wasn’t really going to happen, I was hesitant to share the news with anyone other than a few close family members and friends.  But most had the same reaction.  Tears.  Immediate tears.  Yes, it was overwhelming news for sure and I often wondered if I was simply walking around in some sort of altered state.

A few weeks later I met with Bob and two of his four children, Kent and Beth.  We discussed some ideas of how this gift might be used and how it could fit into the future plans we already had in place.  One of the ideas that appealed to them the most was one that was actually on my own personal bucket list - building four cottages for our graduate transitional program.  (This program has been hugely successful in gradually preparing our graduates for the outside world in a supportive environment, but we only had one cottage for this purpose.  We call the program, WINGS, which stands for Women In Newly Grounded Success.)

I was especially excited because they all three agreed that if we were going to do something, why do it ordinary?  Let’s make the cottages extraordinary.  We already have a reputation for providing a uniquely beautiful home for a population that often finds help in more institutional facilities.  We, however, have a former bed and breakfast on a beautiful 50-acre farm and the cottages needed to live up to that standard.

We also discussed using the other half of this gift to establish an interest bearing account for Blue Monarch to use for major projects and sustainability.  This would be the first time in the history of our organization that we had such a fund. 

Bob then asked if I would plan Jacque’s memorial service and incorporate a groundbreaking ceremony as well.  I could not have been more honored.  And it was especially moving that this memorial service would take place on our own Blue Monarch campus.

So - in a private ceremony last week, we had this special day.  Family members gathered from across the country.  We celebrated the amazing woman Jacque was:  an adventurer, a world traveler, an avid athlete, an amazing mother and wife.  We marveled at how many parallels there were between what she stood for, how she raised her children, and what we do at Blue Monarch.  It was no wonder she was so drawn to Blue Monarch.  Bob said after her first visit she came home talking about us and kept talking about Blue Monarch for days after.    

We laughed at the remarkable way Jacque first learned about Blue Monarch – through her bowling buddy, Pat.  (Which by the way, I’ve been encouraging everyone to get out and bowl.)  And we absorbed the deep meaning of how this gift, that originated from Bob and Jacque, but is actually being granted by their four children, not only demonstrates the continuation of her generous heart through her family members, but will also impact so many women and children in the years to come.

The four siblings, Kent Peters from Tennessee, Lynn Peters from California, Robert Peters from Michigan, and Beth Corwin Peters from New Hampshire, each had beautiful brass plaques designed that feature their own sentiments about their mother, along with words of encouragement for the families who will live in the cottages.

Caden and Linsey
Our four upcoming graduates, who are scheduled to move into the new cottages in the fall, participated in the moving ceremony.  Brandy read a beautiful prayer she wrote herself.  Tosha read scripture and her eleven-year-old son, Caden, also participated by reading the list of things Jacque would have strived to do as a Campfire Girl when she was young. Linsey shared an emotional story of her recovery and the impact this gift will have on her and her son, AidynMaggie closed with a moving prayer that all the residents wrote together.  It included blessings for the Peters family and gratitude for their new guardian angel, Jacque. 

As a symbol of how the numbers of women and children benefitting from this opportunity will continue to grow, the residents of Blue Monarch scattered wildflower seeds in the garden that will surround the future playground of the WINGS community.  Then in a deeply moving gesture, the family members eagerly began spreading seeds alongside them.  I’m sure Jacque was beaming at this point.

It was a glorious day.  And it was truly a day of abundance – not just abundance in gifts - but abundance in new friendships, abundance in community support, abundance in the numbers of women and children we will be able to serve, and abundance in the blessings they will receive.  

I have to wonder, how many times are we praying for a Pinto when God really wants to give us a Cadillac?  The Bible is filled with examples of how much he loves us and wants to give to us abundantly.  (Luke 11:9-13)  But it’s also filled with instruction that we must first ask – and also believe we will receive. 

Thank you, Lord.  We are grateful for those who listen to you and allow others to receive abundantly. 

An exceptional mother allowing others to become one.
Mildred Jacqueline Peters

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Beautiful Place Called Rock Bottom

This may sound terrible, but back when I was the one to interview potential residents in jail, I loved to find a woman who had reached rock bottom.  I looked for the telltale sign she was really there:  she had lost everyone.

She would often be a woman who collapsed onto the metal table where we talked, crying uncontrollably, not even concerned about how she might look to the other inmates or officers wandering in and out of the room.  She was completely broken and would tell me, "I have no one."  And I was happy to hear it.

The reason I liked to find a woman who had truly reached rock bottom was because I knew she had the greatest chance of success.  She was the one who would probably make it.  Why is that?  Because she finally had to rely on herself to seek help - and there was no one to fall back on.  It was up to her and her alone.  Truth is, as long as there is someone out there who will bail her out (literally and figuratively) every time she messes up, why change?  It's working.

But what does it take to get to that point?  It takes everyone around her letting goYes, it takes letting go.

This is something that comes up quite often as we talk with parents, grandparents, friends, and advocates who want to help someone they love.  They know they shouldn't give her money again, they know they should probably let her sit in jail, and they realize they are enabling her - but it's so hard to say no!  I get that.

I'll be the first to admit, if it were my own child I'm not sure I could say no.  I often compare this advice to what they tell you to do if you are in the ocean and come face to face with a shark - be still and don't move.  Seriously?  That just completely goes against nature and everything your body tells you to do.  And saying no to your child who's asking for help feels just as unnatural.
So I had this on my mind the other day and decided to ask the experts what they thought.  I spent some time talking with the amazing women we have here at Blue Monarch to get their thoughts on the subject.

Here are some of the interesting things I learned:

First of all, I asked them if they thought it took getting to rock bottom to make the decision to come to Blue Monarch.  Every single one immediately said, yes.  Interesting.

I asked them to describe what rock bottom meant to them.  Each woman said it was when she had lost all support.  One said, "It took my family leaving me for good to finally make me break."  Another said, "It wasn't until I lost everyone's support that I really started to look inside myself."  And this.  "I finally realized I was about to become another statistic and my baby was going to be a ward of the state."

I asked a tougher question.  "For all the parents out there who are afraid their daughter will hurt herself when they finally have the courage to say no - what advice do you have?  Are they really running that risk?"

"Helping them more is only fueling them to go further down - so what's the difference?"  They all nodded and agreed.  They also began giving examples of when they had threatened suicide or said others would hurt them, just to get what they wanted.

So I asked, "What should people do, then?"  All at once, each woman began throwing out answers to my question - and it was clear they were quite passionate about what they had to say...

"Have faith that God will save them!"
"Don't make bond - let them sit there."
"For sure, don't give them money whatever you do."
"Pray for them."
"Don't believe all the lies."
"Don't answer the phone."  (And this was coming from a woman who had been living under a bridge at her lowest point.)
"Tell them you love them - but be strong and don't give in."

They then began offering words of encouragement beyond the pain.

"After they get better they will see where your love was."
"They will appreciate it later."
"They know their family will return."
"Coming back to life makes you understand why your family did what they had to do."
"They will thank you for loving them like you had to."

At that point, as if they had rehearsed it in chorus, they all said, "Please don't love us to death!"

So there you go.  Tough words from women who know what rock bottom looks like and what it takes to climb out.

There's one more reason I love to see a woman who has lost all support and it's by far the most important.  Sometimes I think it takes looking around and seeing no one before she is finally ready to reach for Jesus, which is the greatest help of all.  That's why rock bottom is actually a beautiful place.  It's from there that some of the greatest healing truly begins.

So do you know someone who needs help getting to Rock Bottom?

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."  John 8:12

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Lasting Light of a Little Girl

The month of April never comes and goes without my reliving this life-changing and very personal event.  

The day was April 24th, ten years ago, and I was driving home from work after a particularly frustrating day.  For the three years since we had opened, I had watched numerous women arrive at Blue Monarch, having been addicted to meth, showing absolutely no bond with their children.  They interacted with one another as if they were siblings.

I had attended a conference a few years earlier, where I learned that meth actually destroys the part of the brain that gives a mother nurturing instincts toward her children.  Other parts of the brain can eventually take over this function, much like a stroke victim, but it takes a long time.  Meth was referred to as the "Devil's Drug", which seemed like a pretty fitting name for something that actually made it impossible for a woman to feel love for her own child.

In this conference we watched stunning videos of actual raids on meth labs.  Police officers in scary Darth Vader type masks stormed into houses shouting and pointing guns.  What made such an impression on me, though, was that even the smallest, terrified children did not reach for their mothers.  They already knew they were essentially on their own.

On this day in April I was driving home thinking about how fed up I was with this very issue.  I recalled all the women who had left Blue Monarch before they were ready, taking their helpless children with them back into dreadful circumstances, and I was sick of it.

I began to wonder if perhaps my job was done?  Maybe my purpose was to get Blue Monarch started and then move on?  After all, after watching so many women make terrible choices I wasn't even sure if we were making a difference.

About that time, I rounded a curve just three miles from my house and could see that an accident had just happened.  There was a car upside down and it was smoking.  No other cars seemed to be involved and there were no emergency vehicles on the scene.

I pulled over to the side of the road, called 911, and began walking to the car.  This is where everything began to move in slow motion and every detail became permanently etched into my brain.

My dusty pink sandals crunched through the broken glass and gravel as I carefully approached the overturned car.  The closer I got I began to smell a strong odor of alcohol.  Well, that's great.  A drunk driver.  Look what you've done.

When I reached the car, I found a woman sitting on the bank with her elbows resting on her bony knees.  Her long, dark hair was sloppily piled on top her head.  At first glance she looked very much like all the meth addicts I had seen over the past three years.  She was covered in nasty sores, was extremely thin, and she was missing several teeth.  In my present state of mind, I thought to myself, "Another addict!  Well, at least you didn't hurt someone else."

That's when she looked up at me with those dark, empty eyes and said, "Do you think she's going to be okay?"  

I looked around and didn't see who she was talking about.  But before I could answer she asked me again, "Do you think she's going to be okay?"

Then much to my horror, I discovered a small child, a beautiful little girl, lying in the brush behind her.  She was face-up, eyes were closed, and I remember thinking it was hard to imagine how her body looked like it had been carefully placed in the tall weeds and brush even though she was obviously thrown violently from the car.  I rushed to the little girl's side and felt her for a pulse - but she was already gone.

At that moment I felt like I had stepped into hell.  Right before my eyes - in living color - was the very thing I was so sick of.  Here was a mother, much like the others I had seen, who was not responding like she had just lost her child, much less due to her own actions.  I was so angry with her I couldn't even look at her.

As this woman stumbled around mumbling to herself, I sat next to her little girl, held her hand, and began praying to God - not to miraculously bring her back, but to thank him for sparing at least one child from the life I could only imagine she had been living.

This tragic incident threw me into a deep, dark depression.  For the first time in my life I truly understood this thing called, "depression".  It was frightening to feel something take over my mind that was more powerful than myself, something I seemed to have absolutely no control over.  I always thought depression was something you just needed to snap out of.  It didn't happen to strong people like me.  I began to wonder if maybe this was how addiction felt?  I remember going to bed praying that I would please wake up as someone else who didn't feel this terrible pain.  The world was an ugly place and surely God was disappointed and disgusted with the entire human race.

But over the following weeks God amazingly took this dreadful experience and began speaking to me in powerful and loving ways...

"You have been focusing on all the darkness and not on the light."

"You have forgotten all the children who will not be dead on the side of the road one day -  because their mothers came to Blue Monarch."

"You don't know what that mother's life was like that led her to that point - or how different it may have been if she had had a place like Blue Monarch when she needed it."  Wow.  How true.

And then this:  "You thought you were finished?  We're just getting started."

That's when the darkness lifted.  I realized that indeed, I had been focusing on the disappointments and not celebrating all the victories and miracles I had seen happen over the past three years, which were countless!  I had watched women heal from terrible addictions.  I had seen mothers develop a bond with their children and become wonderful parents for the first time.  Children who had shown up angry and dysfunctional had become healthy, happy kids! 

This became the beginning of our wonderful Proverbs 22:6 Children's Program.  As God said, we were just getting started!  We became avid advocates for the children we serve and our team developed a rich program specifically for them.  No longer were children just there.  They became the focus of our mission.  We realized we had a valuable opportunity to completely change the world of a child, which in turn will change the world of future generations.  (Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.  Proverbs 22:6)

There is a small cross on the side of the road that I see every single day that is a powerful reminder to me of this terrible incident, but it's the photo on my desk that I love.  This little girl's father graciously shared a picture of her that I keep where I can always see it.  It's a beautiful illustration of how God can take even the most devastating event and turn it into something wonderful.  Let's face it.  There are hundreds of children who have lived healthier, happier lives and will have much brighter futures because of this precious little girl and the impact she had on our ministry.

God was right.  It is much nicer focusing on the light.  But it's when we bring others into the light with us that it gets even brighter.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

Triumph Over Terror

I'll jump at a sudden noise, but it takes a lot to really scare me.  However, I vividly remember a day when I had a rush of fear I've never forgotten.

My husband and I live near a magnificent waterfall that belongs to the state of Tennessee.  When we first moved to the mountain almost twenty years ago, we loved walking to the base of the falls, which was a long steep trail down a couple hundred feet.  A swinging bridge takes you to a beautiful pool of water with massive boulders and after a big rain, the roar of the falls is deafening.

One Tuesday morning I decided to hike to the falls by myself.  My dog, Lady, followed me and off we went.  I typically enjoyed the park more during the week than the weekends because there were no hikers or rock climbers and I could have the place to myself.

Halfway down the steep, rugged descent to the base of the falls, I suddenly looked up and found five grown men standing there.  They didn't look like rock climbers - that was for sure.  And they didn't look like typical hikers, either.  They were all filthy and quite a rough looking bunch of men.

"Well, look fellas, there's a lady in the house."

My heart stopped.  Oh man, this was such a stupid thing for me to do - taking this hike without telling anyone where I was going.  By the way the hair on the back of my neck stood up, I knew this didn't feel right.  It occurred to me that if I ran, their instincts might be to chase me, even if they hadn't planned to.  So I decided I needed to make them believe I had absolutely no reason to be afraid.  I continued walking straight toward them on the trail, even though it was the exact opposite of what I really wanted to do.  I hoped they would assume I had a whole brigade of burly men following me who might appear at any moment.  (This was way before we had cell service in the area.)

Much to my surprise, when I got face to face with the five men, every one of them suddenly sat down on the ground at the same time.  I didn't know what to make of it or what to expect next.

"WILL IT BITE?" they asked.   I couldn't understand what they were talking about because my dog, Lady, had unfortunately run on without me and was no help.

"Will what bite?" I asked.

"THAT!"  They pointed at the top of the ridge and looked like they were absolutely terrified.  Much to my surprise, my dog, Missy, was standing there - but even though she was a chow mix with one eye, she had never looked the least bit threatening so I couldn't understand their extreme reaction to her.  She had never bitten anyone and was a sweet dog.

Nevertheless, I said, "Well, that's the thing.  You just never know."

Missy had never made this hike with me before, and never did again after this day, but she quickly ran down the mountain and stood next to me until all five men got up and scrambled up the trail out of sight.

I've always believed that God made them see something much scarier than my dog, Missy.  There's really no explanation for their bizarre behavior.

But I'll admit.  I was terrified of what could have happened that day.  And I've remembered this event many times since then.  However, I was an adult and I also understood that I had gotten myself into this terrible predicament.

On the other hand, we often have children at Blue Monarch who have experienced some pretty terrifying and traumatic events, much scarier than my example, at the hands of others through no fault of their own.  Many of them have hidden for safety in places you and I would think were pretty creepy - like the dark crawlspace of a house.  We had a young boy who had a history of hiding there until he heard his mother sing their special song, letting him know it was safe for him to come out.

We have a precious little boy living with us right now who had good reason to be terrified of dogs.  At the tender age of only two, someone he should have been able to trust with his life allowed a pit bull to lunge at him, only to yank the dog back when it was within inches of his face.  This adult did this for his own amusement, but it caused this little boy to develop a terrifying and severe fear of dogs.  Even puppies made him hysterical.

This is a great example of the individual nature of our ministry.  It's not in our curriculum to help a child overcome the fear of dogs.  But once we learned of the history in this child's life, and why he was so frightened of our farm animals and dogs in particular, we wanted to help him overcome this terrible fear and in the process, learn to trust others.

Well, I'm happy to report that yesterday Braelin absolutely fell in love with Kim's dog, Moxie!  His mother, Erin, was moved to tears because he was finally able to overcome this tremendous fear and actually love on a dog and enjoy playing with her.  What a triumph!

Erin's explanation is that this peaceful place, and her son's new sense of security here, have allowed him to not only overcome fear of dogs, but his fear of all animals, and even the dark!  He no longer insists on keeping a light on at bedtime.  As Erin says, "His fear has been removed because we are at Blue Monarch."

When someone asks, "How do you measure success?" I won't think of spreadsheets and statistics.  I will think of this frightened, angry child who stomped through our doors months ago - and the loving, happy child who lives here today, no longer tortured and fearful.  And I will also think of the mother who regained custody of her child and loved him so much, she desperately wanted to see him healed of his debilitating fear and was moved to tears when it happened.  I will also think of the amazing way God led them both to Blue Monarch where they could be reunited and this sweet little boy could be healed. 

So how do we measure success?  By observing stories like this one every single day.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  Isaiah 41:10