From my front row seat

Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Made Me Sick...Until It Made Sense

I found Christmas very troubling as a child.  It made absolutely no sense to me why everyone, including grownups I trusted, went along with what was clearly a hoax - that Santa was real. 

How could it possibly be true?  He didn’t look the same from store to store.  For starters, his nose changed from place to place.  Each Santa had a different voice and smell.  (One Santa even smelled like mothballs.)  Sometimes Santa was jolly but at the next store he might be sort of cranky.  I remember demanding an explanation, “Why is Santa here and down the street at the same time?”  The answer was that Santa had helpers, so then I wanted to know if the one I saw was the real thing – or just a helper, because surely it made a difference. 

It.  Made.  No.  Sense.

So I can remember sitting on Santa’s knee at the Sears and Roebuck department store, looking around at everyone else, hoping to make eye contact with anyone who might nod and give me a clue that they also knew the terrible truth.  Hey, y'all.  Is no one seeing what I'm seeing here? 

Each year this charade became increasingly troubling to me the closer we got to Christmas.  So by Christmas morning, right after opening my presents and seeing what “Santa” had left for me, I spent the rest of the morning lying on the sofa, sick with a terrible upset stomach.  My parents always chalked it up to excitement.  It was actually bewilderment that everyone was going along with something that was clearly a big fat lie.

Okay, I am acutely aware that I was ridiculously and unnecessarily analytical.  I get that.  However, once I finally declared that I did not believe in Santa, and my parents confirmed I was right, I was never sick on Christmas again.

What made more sense to me, though, was that Christmas was about celebrating the birth of Jesus.  I loved the Christmas story of Mary miraculously becoming pregnant, and Joseph supporting her even though it probably made no sense to him and required superhuman faith.  I found it exciting and fascinating, that wise men carried all kinds of exotic gifts and followed a brilliant star in the sky until they found baby Jesus.  It was also such a moving image for Jesus, our Lord and Savior, to begin his life in an ordinary barn with farm animals.  It made him so real – just like us.  For God to send his only son to save us, when none of us really deserved it, well this just proved his powerful love for us, which was incredibly comforting and humbling.  And for Jesus to come as a baby, knowing that he would die the most cruel death of all – just for each of us to have everlasting life – this made my heart sing and ache at the same time.  Now, that was a Christmas story that made sense, even though so much of it was even harder to explain than Santa and his flying reindeer.

All of this is why it hurts my heart every time I hear of someone wanting to take Jesus out of his own birthday.  How can that make any sense?  What would be the meaning of Christmas if not for the celebration of Jesus’ birth?  What would we be celebrating?  Ourselves?  Or nothing at all?

Through the years several people have suggested to me that we take Jesus out of Blue Monarch, too.  After all, this would allow us to “reach a larger audience and perhaps gain greater support”.  The first time I heard this my knee jerk reaction surprised me.  My heart began to physically hurt in my chest and I remember wondering if Jesus’ heart was hurting, too.  But my answer has always been the same.  Jesus is not negotiable.  We have Blue Monarch because of Jesus and I keep this picture in my office as a constant reminder.

Each week our staff prays together for the women and children we are serving and for the wisdom and discernment to do our jobs well.  Jesus’ presence in that room is sometimes so tangible it brings tears to my eyes.  It’s powerful.  Blue Monarch is where hundreds of children have learned about Jesus for the first time and really grasped that he loves them and will always be with them – even after they leave Blue Monarch one day.  Jesus assures some of the women who need to know, that the love of a heavenly father can be quite different from the love of an earthly father.  And Jesus is the one who sometimes gently whispers in my ear, “Remember, this woman is my child and I love her.  So look at her through my eyes.”

Jesus is not only the reason for the season.  He is the reason for the hope and healing Blue Monarch offers to his wounded women and children who come to us for help.  After all, they don’t just show up by accident.  Jesus is the one who sends them. 

This is how God showed his love among us:  He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  1 John 4:9
That’s a day worth celebrating.  And it has a name.  Christmas.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Thankful Smarty-Pants

For many years my mother worked very hard to get us to be thankful people on Thanksgiving Day.  I imagine she had this Norman Rockwell fantasy that we would go around the table, each of us listing the five things we were thankful for in moving and compelling ways.  But in reality she had a lot of trouble getting us to cooperate.  She tried everything.  One year she even held dessert hostage until we listed the five things, but most of us just decided to forego dessert, altogether.  In looking back, I’m not sure why it became such a struggle, but the more pressure I felt to be grateful, the less grateful I became.

So one year I prepared my list in advance, hoping it would put an end to this dreadful exercise.  I was grateful the whales made it out from under the ice okay.  (Do you remember that?)  I was grateful that Elvis was still alive, from what some were saying.  (I could hear my cousin’s grandmother whispering, “Elvis.  Elvis is still alive?!”) My third thing was some derogatory comment about the women my brother had dated that year.  And I’m too ashamed to list the last two. 

Needless to say, my five things were not received with quite the humor I thought they deserved.  They bombed, actually.  And immediately after reciting the five things I was thankful for, my dear, sweet aunt tearfully described how thankful she was for her successful cancer surgery.  That’s when I realized, yep, it’s official.  I’m a terrible person.  If I were going through a 12-step program today, I’m sure this incident would be included in my moral inventory. 

Well, a lot has changed since then because I’m so thankful today, it would be impossible to list only five.  I suppose my mother is grateful I finally grew up, so I’m certainly thankful for her patience and tolerance.  In fact, I could spend the rest of the day listing how thankful I am for my family - especially my husband and daughter who have supported me in this Blue Monarch venture and faithfully held me up through the years. 

But we just finished Thanksgiving Dinner at Blue Monarch today and I am completely overwhelmed at all God’s blessings.  Honestly, as I look around at all the women and children we serve, as I scan the room and recall the specific experiences of each woman and child and what led them here, when I look at the amazing staff members who dedicate their lives to this ministry – well, it literally takes my breath away. 

I mean this literally.  There are many times when the enormity of God’s goodness is so overwhelming, it causes me to lose my breath for a moment and get all teary with no warning.  I often have these moments when I’m alone in my car, when I really allow myself to take it all in and feel such huge emotion. 

So if I could get a do-over for being such a smarty-pants all those years ago, I think my new list would look something like this:

1.  I am thankful for all the precious, little children who show up at Blue Monarch tired, angry, and wounded but still have a willingness to give their moms another chance to earn their trust.  Their remarkable resilience and capacity to forgive amazes me.

2.  I am thankful for the women who were once those same children, who desperately want to provide a happier and healthier future for their kids, despite the fact they never had a childhood of their own.  Their courage to smile after a lifetime of atrocious traumas and hardships is truly an inspiration to me.

3.  I am thankful for my loving family’s support, our gifted and dedicated staff, our courageous board members, and all the many, many volunteers and donors who make Blue Monarch possible for so many hurting women and children.  I can’t even count the number of times individuals have described to me the way God placed Blue Monarch on their hearts to help us.  I am grateful they listened and were obedient.

4.  I am thankful for my precious granddaughter, who despite the daily challenges of her special needs, greets each new day with nothing less than complete joy and tremendous courage.  She never fails to put my world into proper perspective – and always makes me laugh.  I have watched her little body fight some fierce battles but what I have never seen is the first shred of discouragement.  She is by far the happiest person I know and has taught me volumes about endurance.

5.  Most of all, I am thankful for the huge and amazing God we serve.  My word.  It’s impossible to describe.  Often when I leave my office, I have the great pleasure of seeing a breathtaking sunset that I’m convinced has been put there for the benefit of our women and children.  Sometimes I drag them from the dinner table to see it because it’s a gift especially for them!  I get to hear our precious children say the blessing before they eat.  I get to hear the women laugh among themselves as they reflect on their activities that day.  I get to see women caring for babies that may have been born addicted if they had not come to Blue Monarch.   And as I walk out the door, I always catch a glimpse of something, even something as insignificant as this row of infant seats, that reminds me of how enormous God’s plan was for Blue Monarch and yes, it takes my breath away and puts tears in my eyes with no warning.  So for all of that – I am thankful beyond words – and now I think I will rush to my car for some alone time.

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom, which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire. 
Hebrews 12:28-29

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

To Those Who Fill the Gap

One of our first residents arrived with a four-month-old baby who had a heart condition that had not been treated.  The child did not have a healthy, pink glow like most children, and she appeared to have gone without a bath for some time.

Not too long after this mother and child arrived, the woman left her baby at Blue Monarch and went to Florida to reunite with the baby's father.  Yes, that's right.  She asked us to care for her child and left town with no clear plans to return.

Naturally I contacted the child's grandmother and assumed she and her husband would immediately rescue their grandchild.  But guess what?  They did not.  They had no intentions of solving this mother's problems.  They had helped her so many times - they were finished.

This is something I understand much better today.  But at the time, I was completely confused and angered by this reaction.

So I did what seemed reasonable at the time.  I went to court and got temporary custody of the child.  I went to work as usual one day - and came home with a baby.  I just couldn't bear the thought of her going to strangers when she had an ordeal like surgery coming up soon.

At this point in our lives, my only child was in college.  A baby didn't really fit into our world very well, and she screamed most nights because of night terrors.  Our world was turned upside down and I didn't really have a clear plan for how this might play out.

Soon we began multiple trips back and forth to Vanderbilt Children's Hospital to prepare for heart surgery, and it was difficult to watch her tiny, little body go through all that was involved in that process.  I have vivid memories of curling up next to her in the hospital crib, desperate to give her a sense of love and comfort during such a frightening time.  There was one scary incident when she fought with the oxygen tube until it developed into a middle of the night crisis with a team of nurses and doctors struggling to help her.  My heart ached as I had to explain over and over who I was, and why she was not with her mother during such a critical time.

There was a young, single mom working at Blue Monarch, whose lifestyle made much better sense to take on the role of primary caregiver for this baby, but Evie (not her real name) was still my responsibility and I loved her.  Needless to say, I became extremely attached to this precious child and watched her thrive and grow from a sickly four-month-old, to a vibrant toddler.  She was bright, funny, and had a fiery temper to go along with her beautiful red hair.  I loved this child and felt a fierce need to protect her.  She had a supportive and loving family surrounding her and her future looked bright.

But after we had ten months of falling in love with Evie, the grandmother decided she wanted to have her after all.  I couldn't imagine a judge granting her custody when we had become Evie's family, but he did.  It was that simple.  She was family.  We were not.

So on an otherwise ordinary day in a Stuckey's parking lot, we handed her over to the grandmother, along with a list of her favorite foods, which only illustrated how little this grandmother knew about our baby.  I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest as I watched them drive away.  It's a pain that was so severe, it's really impossible to describe.

However, today, all these years later, I thank God for that painful experience.  You know why?  It's because Blue Monarch is in the business of restoring families.  We help women become better parents so they can regain custody of their children.  In fact, at this point over 200 children have reestablished relationships with their mothers who had previously lost custody.  But for every child that is reunited with his mother, there is likely a caregiver out there who is left with a broken heart, perhaps watching our car leave the parking lot with the child he or she loves.

I know only too well how hard it is to hand your heart to a precious little person, make sacrifices for that child, let your guard down, and dare to imagine a future together, always acutely aware that your time together may be temporary - or may be forever.  Either way, you must do the best you can to love this child, without limitations, each and every day, because that's what they need more than anything in that moment.

If not for this personal experience, we may not have encouraged our mothers for all these years, to recognize and thank the many foster parents, grandparents, family members, and friends who were willing to care for their children when they were unable to do so themselves.

We rejoice when mothers are able to reunite with their children after lots of hard work and self-improvement.  That's a glorious blessing!  But we must also celebrate and honor the loving caregivers who are willing to offer their unprotected hearts to a child in a crisis.  It's possibly God's best way to wrap his arms around his precious children when they need it the most.  And the impact of that special gift is truly immeasurable.

Thank you, Lord, for showing me that in our efforts to reunite mothers and children we must never forget the sacrifices of those who bravely and selflessly step in to fill the gap.

Update:  The grandparents have done a wonderful job of raising Evie.  She is healthy, happy, extremely bright, speaks two languages, and is, of course, still beautiful.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Even when God sounds crazy...

Sometimes when I hear others talk about their relationship with God it sounds so beautiful and reverent.  But throughout my Blue Monarch journey, there have been many times when my conversations with God have included lines such as, “What were you thinking, Lord?!” or even “Dear God - are you crazy?!”

One such time was a late night when I was driving down the interstate returning from Nashville.  There I was, minding my own business, listening to music way too loud with the sunroof open.  But suddenly, out of the blue, I heard God tell me, “You need to go by Blue Monarch and pray over Kristi”.  (This is not her real name, by the way.)

Well, it was almost 10:30 and there was no way I was doing that.  I wasn’t accustomed to walking in the door that late at night and certainly not into someone’s bedroom.  Our residents would think I had lost my mind!  And I also convinced myself it would frighten them, and that was reason enough not to go.  So, there.

“For crying out loud, that’s crazy.  I’m not doing it.”  End of story.

But as I drove further down the interstate I began thinking of Kristi and the struggles she had recently experienced.  Over the previous weeks she had lost most of her hearing and no one could figure out why.  It was frustrating for her because she could barely hear, and as a recovering addict in a new place, recently out of jail, healing from a severely abusive marriage, she had enough to deal with.

As I got closer and closer to the exit I would need to take for Blue Monarch, the message from God just got louder and louder.  I couldn’t ignore it no matter how loud I turned up the music.  So as usual, I thought I would cut a deal with God and settle this conflict on my terms.

“Okay, okay, God.  This is the deal.  I will drive out to Blue Monarch – even though it’s now almost 11:00 at night.  If Kristi’s light is on, I’ll go in.  But if she’s in bed, I’m turning around and going home.  And by the way, this is crazy, just so you know.” 

As I drove into the dark driveway at Blue Monarch, and made my way to the Woods House where Kristi was staying, I expected to see a totally dark house.  But there was one single light on downstairs.  I quietly opened the door and walked inside.  And what did I find?  Kristi was the only one awake, and she was sitting there almost like she was expecting me. 

I sat down next to her and said, “I know this sounds crazy, but God told me to come pray with you.”  And at that point I could hear God telling me to place my hands over her ears, which I did, even though it felt like a weird thing to do. Then He told me to tell Kristi that it was safe for her to hear now, that she was not going to hear the hurtful things she had heard in the past. 

As soon as I told her this she collapsed and began to weep.  And I’m sure you know the rest of the story.  Her hearing began returning almost immediately.

Thank you, Lord, for showing me your tremendous power of healing through something I thought was just a crazy idea.  And, oh by the way, thank you for being so patient with me for thinking I knew better. What was I thinking?!  

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Confessions of a Child Burglar

When women apply to Blue Monarch, they are required to fill out an eight-page application that asks, among other things, “What is your drug of choice and when did you start using this drug?”  They are given the opportunity to list lots of drugs, not just one, and rank them in order of preference.

Remarkably, the age for first time use that shows up quite often is eleven.  This has always been hard for me to imagine.  Naturally it makes me immediately picture my own world at the age of eleven and wonder what would have caused me to start using drugs at such a young age.

I’d say the closest I came to breaking the law at the age of eleven was when my best friend, Debbie, and I decided to pretend we were burglars.  I am not sure in thinking back why that was so fascinating to us, but I suspect we had watched way too much GET SMART on television.  We put lots of preparation into this plan and had every detail rehearsed well in advance of the heist. 

When the appointed night came, after a tall glass of chocolate milk, we innocently said goodnight to Debbie’s parents and went off to bed.  As soon as the house got quiet, we stripped off our nightgowns, revealing the black shirts and pants we had hidden underneath.  After synchronizing our watches – not sure why - we pulled her mother’s expensive, nylon stockings over our heads (which distorted our faces beyond recognition) and stuck black stocking caps on top before grabbing pillowcases for our stash – her mother’s jewels (which we honestly planned to return the following day).

The first order of business was to go through the entire house and unscrew all the light bulbs so we would not be discovered in the dark.  First stop: her parents’ bathroom, which in looking back seems awfully ambitious.  We tiptoed into their bedroom, quietly opened the bathroom door, and I proceeded to crawl up on top of the sink.  Their vanity had a Hollywood mirror with lots of large, round light bulbs all around it.  I stood up and straddled the sink, reached up to the top of the mirror, and carefully unscrewed the first bulb just enough so that it wouldn’t light if someone turned on the switch.  Good job.  But just as I began unscrewing the second bulb, it suddenly fell into the sink and bounced around making the most horrible, unbelievably loud clanging sound.

Debbie’s parents rushed into the bathroom and that moment forever froze in time.  First of all, I had never seen Debbie’s glamorous mother without her makeup, so that was a stunning surprise.  And her father was already a mystery to me, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from him.  But the looks of horror that quickly turned into shock and then disgust, were something I will never forget.  It was a long time before I was invited back for a sleepover, and my life of crime ended that night.

But the other day as I was talking with our residents around the kitchen table, I asked them to recall some of their own memories at the age of eleven so I could understand how drug use could start at such a tender age – an age when I didn’t even know what drugs were, and could barely get my cat eye glasses on straight.

One immediately told about being molested by her mother’s boyfriend and how her mother wouldn’t believe her.  Another talked about having to drive the car at the age of eleven because her mother was often in no shape to drive.  One woman remembers her father driving away from the house in a rage and running over her on her bike.  And sadly, another woman recalled walking the streets for hours looking for her mother who would disappear for weeks, leaving her to care for her younger brother.

So it’s no mystery why drugs looked like a good solution at the age of eleven.  Why not?  It numbed the pain, and the adults in the house were doing it, too.

We can’t go back and redo those painful eleven-year-old memories for our residents, even though I often wish we could.  But here is what we can do:

We can make sure that the precious children we serve at Blue Monarch have good memories of their mothers tucking them in bed at night after saying their prayers.  They will remember waking up in the morning, not wondering where their mom was, but seeing her as soon as they opened their eyes.  They’ll know they didn’t have to wonder if she would be there when they got off the school bus.  And they will remember feeling the safety of a secure home, night after night, and the love of a nurturing environment on a beautiful farm with room to romp and play the way children are supposed to.

And then the cycle will be broken.  One eleven-year-old at a time.

Lord, we thank you that Blue Monarch is a place where beautiful memories are made.  We believe an eleven-year-old is still a child who deserves a happy childhood.  Thank you for making that happen in such an amazing way for the precious children we serve.  And we pray for healing for all the eleven-year-old memories that are not what they should be but are hopefully the last of their kind in the family tree.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Let's talk about abuse...

I used to think what I saw on television was sensationalized simply to outdo whatever was on the other channels.  But sadly, I’ve learned through my experience at Blue Monarch that the violence on television actually falls way short of what people really do to one another. 

Strangely enough, I’ve heard more than one first-hand story from a woman who was beaten and then left for dead in a ditch before getting discovered days later.  Several of our residents have suffered from hearing loss or even brain damage from severe blows to the head.  We had one survivor at Blue Monarch who was stabbed seven times and then amazingly lived to tell about it.  And we currently have a courageous woman who miraculously survived five gunshot wounds to her belly and will face her attacker in court soon.  (There are much more horrific stories that I keep to myself because I don’t want others to wish they could un-hear them, too.)

Sometimes I think abuse takes a backseat to addiction.  In the beginning of Blue Monarch, I expected to focus primarily on domestic violence, but I quickly learned that drug use becomes the easiest way to self-medicate, and then this often leads to drug addiction.  The two go hand in hand much of the time.

Abuse is such a part of the culture in some families that it’s not even recognized as abuse.   Often our applicants do not consider themselves as victims of abuse until they later learn their experience was not normal – or legal.  This is especially true if domestic violence was something they observed growing up.

I can’t count the times I have been asked, usually in a sympathetic whisper, if I was motivated to start Blue Monarch because I was a victim of domestic violence.  Thankfully the answer to that question is a big, fat “no”. 

However, someone very dear to me was, and I struggled for over twenty years to help her find a way out.  Somehow there was always an obstacle that prevented her from leaving – and most of those obstacles had to do with one thing:  her extremely low self-esteem, which was a hard thing to fix by that time.  Surprisingly, one day she actually made the decision to leave, so we took off to Florida for a few days.

She was like a bird out of a cage for the first time.  She took absolute delight in the simplest things: being able to empty the contents of her purse onto the bed, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking barefoot across the room with sandy feet, not having to straighten her naturally curly hair…For the first time in many years, she was in control of her life, and she was loving it! 

But sadly this story had a tragic ending.  Before our flight back home landed at the airport, her husband violently took his own life, which ended the abuse but did not end the pain, trauma, or damage by a long shot.  (I suspect I’m not the only one who has pondered “what if” hundreds of times since then.) 

We do not exclude men at Blue Monarch.  Quite the contrary, we love to have good men participate in our program.  We have two very smart and wonderful men who lead a book study every Friday with our residents.  Faithful male volunteers help by mentoring and tutoring our children or working on maintenance projects.  We believe it’s important to expose the women and children to men who are kind, generous, and respectful.  In fact, just yesterday one of our residents told me she hoped she could find someone like Daniel one day (a pastor who leads Bible study twice a week) because “if she could find someone who loved God the way he did, he would surely love her the right way.”

We recently had a lunch to honor Madeline and Howell Adams, who have completed a significant pledge to Blue Monarch.  After every visit we always hear lots of comments about how “down to earth and nice” they are.  This is so true, but what seems to make the greatest impression on the women of Blue Monarch is how Madeline and Howell express their tremendous love and respect for one another.  “Did you see the way she looked at him?”  “Could you believe how sweet he was to her?” 

We cover a lot of important issues at Blue Monarch, but through our work to improve self-esteem, build confidence, and study healthy relationships, if we can also raise the bar for future partners, we may have one more chance at changing future generations to come. 

We want every woman at Blue Monarch to celebrate who she is and realize just how very special God made her!  For every day she’s reminded of how uniquely wonderful she is, the stronger that conviction becomes embedded in her heart – and the further she gets from allowing someone to convince her otherwise someday.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… Psalms 139:14

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Scary Cup of Tea...

One of my greatest pleasures at Blue Monarch is introducing our residents to new and exciting experiences.  For instance, every year it's our tradition to take the residents to a "fancy" dinner at Opryland Hotel.  (We look for folks to sponsor this event in case you're interested...)

The ride there is almost as fun as the dinner.  "What fork do I use?" is one of the most common questions, which usually brings up a reference to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.  One year we clearly didn't get the fork thing figured out because someone at the table thought it made sense for each person to use a grouping of silverware, which included your two forks and your neighbor's knife and spoon.  That makes sense.  So as that pattern traveled down the table, it cheated the person at the end, of course.  Otherwise it was a pretty good idea.

Another special event is when we get all dressed up and frilly and make our annual trip to Tea on the Mountain in Tracy City.  If you haven't been there, you might have passed it and never imagined that inside that unassuming white concrete block building on the corner is a tantalizing tearoom, much like you might find in British Columbia.  Dainty tea sets are displayed on tables covered in beautiful, lacy tablecloths.  And you are treated to a never-ending supply of wonderful, bite-sized sweet and savory treats delivered on a 3-tiered rack with a bottomless cup of hot tea.

This year our staff members drew names to see which residents would sit with them at the table.  Naturally the ones I drew were especially nervous because they didn't want to slurp, break or spill anything sitting next to the person they considered to have the most authority.  Cassie and Samantha sat on either side of me and Cassie looked like she was on the verge of hyperventilating.  She couldn't have been more nervous.

I heard someone say that people often make connections through imperfections and that's so true.  I knew exactly how Cassie felt.  Years ago when I first met my former husband, I was invited to Christmas dinner with his family.  His world was much different than the one I was accustomed to so instead of folks wearing their favorite faded jeans for Christmas dinner, the women in his family wore strapless, formal gowns and the men wore coats and ties.  There was a staff of people in the kitchen who quietly delivered food on silver platters and in crystal bowls to the beautifully laid buffet that sat alongside the elegant dining room table that comfortably seated fourteen.

Since I was a guest, I was invited to be the first in line at the buffet.  I was horrified (much like Cassie and Samantha were the other day).  With no one to watch for direction, I made my way through the line of food and was delighted to discover roast beef and mashed potatoes.  Good.  I could handle that, although I thought the bowl of mashed potatoes was surprisingly small, which surely meant they were bringing out more in a minute.
I put several slabs of beef on my delicate china plate and topped it with a huge mound of mashed potatoes.  Then I made a well, of course, in the middle of the potatoes and filled it with ample gravy.  I looked for someone to quickly refill the bowl with more potatoes.  Surely they would, since what I left would never be enough for everyone.
Much to my surprise, when I took a big bite of my potatoes I immediately discovered it was not mashed potatoes - but horseradish!  (Who had heard of such a thing?)  Naturally I was completely mortified and I painfully proceeded to eat the pile of horseradish as if I intended to eat a big helping of it all along - with the well full of gravy.  My eyes filled with tears and my sinuses opened up in ways I never knew possible.  I thought I would die.

So the other day when I saw Cassie panic and turn fifty shades of red when she accidentally slurped her soup, when she clinked her cup a little too loud, and when we thought her asparagus soup might come out her nose when she laughed, it was wonderful.  She went into that experience scared to death.  But you know what?  She enjoyed herself, she learned a lot about proper etiquette, she tasted foods she had never seen before, and she broadened her horizons in the meantime.  The world doesn't look the same to her now.

It turns out it's the willingness to step out and try new things - and laugh at yourself in the process - that gives you the courage to take the next step.  Cassie was not the same person when she put down that teacup and walked out the door.  She was braver, smarter - and a thousand times more confident.  It's all about conquering your fears - even if it's a mountain of horseradish or a cup of hot tea.  And that's what Blue Monarch is all about.

Returning to old friends and stomping grounds is rarely successful after rehabilitation.  We pray that each new and exciting experience makes the old world look less and less appealing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Is Mother's Day complicated or what?

I recently heard that the highest volume of calls to addiction crisis hot lines is on Mother’s Day.  I’ve not heard a reason why, but looking at the complicated meaning of Mother’s Day at Blue Monarch, I can only imagine.

Let’s face it.  Some of the mothers who come to Blue Monarch are not always the ones people want to celebrate.  After all, they may have lost custody of their children at some point because of something they shouldn’t have done.  They may have pawned them off on family members or friends so they could pursue what was more important – drugs.  Their children may have ended up in the foster care system because the state had to step in to take care of them. 

Because of that, a huge focus of our program is helping women who have not been very good parents in the past, gain the tools to become healthier mothers.  And thankfully, through the love and grace of Jesus Christ, nearly 200 children through Blue Monarch have been able to reestablish a relationship with their mothers who had previously lost custody.  But how can we possibly celebrate mothers like that?

We often receive tearful calls from concerned mothers who are desperate to find help for their grown daughters.  They are very distraught and sometimes just need someone to listen.  

But sadly, we also see countless cases where the mother has been perhaps the worst influence in a woman’s life.   We’ve heard over and over from our residents, heartbreaking stories of their mothers trading them out for sex as young girls in order to support their own drug addictions.  We’ve had a number of women at Blue Monarch who were arrested with their own mothers and were even court ordered to have no more communication with them.  I remember the mother of one of our residents trying to justify why she taught her daughter to use meth at the age of 14.  “Well, if I had known it was her first time I wouldn’t have done it!”  

Much of what we see at Blue Monarch is generations of drug use and abuse.  It’s a known fact that one’s social development stops when drug use begins.  And since most begin using between the ages of 11 and 13, that means we see grown women who arrive acting like preteens even though they have children of their own.  It actually takes re-parenting at Blue Monarch to help them grow up and become parents, themselves. 

But the shocking fact is that sometimes their own mothers, and perhaps even grandmothers, began using drugs at the same age so their social maturity never developed either.  So look what you have - an entire family tree where no one has matured beyond the age of 13.  Imagine the level of dysfunction and chaos that creates.  And consider what it would take to break that cycle.

For a woman to step out of that vicious, familiar cycle and come to Blue Monarch where everything is completely new takes tremendous courage!  She may have left behind family members who are angry with her for wanting to get better, who may even try to sabotage her recovery.  We recently had one resident’s mother who planted drug paraphernalia in her daughter’s room, hoping she would get discharged from our program.  After all, when one person gets better, it throws off the entire family dynamics. 

We had a young woman here one time who had been sold for drugs by her own mother as a young girl.  When she arrived she easily lost patience with her toddlers and struggled to be a nurturing parent.  But something happened in her tenth month here that showed me that terrible cycle had been broken. 

Her girls were playing with word magnets on the refrigerator door and yelling, "Mommy, Mommy, what is this word?!"  I expected her to get irritated but much to my surprise, she carefully examined one of the word magnets in her hand and said, "That word is 'beautiful' and that's what you are."  Then I knew it.  That cycle had been broken because her own mother probably never said something like that to her.
The amazing and courageous women we see who take that uncertain step to come out of their homes where everyone uses drugs, and bring their children to Blue Monarch where they can begin a new and completely unfamiliar life, possibly with no family support, are the women I want to salute.  They are, without a doubt, the unsung heroes in my eyes. 

It’s easy to judge women who haven’t been good to their children.  But thank God, when they decide they want to become loving and nurturing mothers, there is a place they can go to learn how.  Here.

This month when we focus on mothers, I’d like to celebrate the brave and remarkable mothers at Blue Monarch!  Hold your heads up high.  After all, because of your courageous and steadfast determination, your children will now have a chance at the childhood you always wanted.  And guess what.  So will your grandchildren one day…and their children…and their children…  And that’s something to celebrate. 

Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not turn from it.  Proverbs 22:6 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

What am I called if my mother and father are both in prison?

Seven-year-old Noah asked this question recently.  He had heard if both your parents were dead you were called an orphan.  So he wanted to know what he would be called if both his parents were in prison.  His dad is already there for five more years and his mother is looking at a possible four years in federal prison, although we are hopeful the judge will allow her to remain at Blue Monarch.  This painful uncertainty is something Noah and his sisters are accustomed to living with daily.  (Noah and his mom have approved this story, by the way.)

Since Noah brought this up I haven't been able to get this question out of my head.  It immediately brought me back to a time when I was a child and the kids from the local Children's Home attended my church.  A few times I rode back on the bus with them after church to spend the afternoon with some of my friends who lived there.  Today that same Children's Home has individual homes to provide a more typical family environment but at that time it was much like a Little Orphan Annie dorm.  There was a large, dark brick building with vast rooms, tall ceilings, cold hardwood floors and each child had a twin-size bed and chest of drawers filled with only a few belongings, lined up against the wall with numerous children to a room. 
Meals were loud and chaotic in the dining hall and each child had a chore to complete before leaving the room.  It was common for the children there to insist their moms and dads were coming for them, which rarely happened.  And they often gazed out the window as if they expected their parents to drive up at any moment.  I wonder now if some of those kids had the same question Noah is asking today.
I think back on the Noah who first arrived here ten months ago.  He was an absolute handful!  He was angry and bad about biting those around him.  He hit others, including his mom.  He yelled A LOT - and was in trouble most of the time.  His first week at school started badly when he threatened to kill the father of a classmate.  Apparently it all started when he told a little girl she was pretty.  Not sure how it escalated so quickly, but in Noah's world this was probably a pretty normal chain of events.

Noah's young world had already been packed with turmoil.  His parents had both been in and out of jail his whole life, he had been moved from place to place numerous times, and had even been struck by lightning at the age of four.  Yes, struck by lightning.  And this apparently has nothing to do with his double vision.

But after ten months at Blue Monarch, Noah is a different child.  He has soaked up his life here like a sponge.  He absolutely adores his tutor, a gracious seminarian who inspires and motivates Noah to learn and always takes the time to play after their lessons.  I can't count the number of times I have watched the two of them run past my office on their way to play basketball or toss the football.  And Noah's grades?  Well, he started the year with only dashes on his report card.  But now?  He's advanced in three subjects!

A card Noah made me
He's seeing the eye doctor as I'm writing this, getting prepared for an upcoming surgery to correct his double vision.  And Noah's behavior?  He's so proud to run in and report to me that he was "green" all day, which means he stayed out of trouble at school.

Noah loves church, the Bible, and the Lord.  He recently made a card for two of our major donors and inside the card he asked, "Do you love Jesus?"  He drew boxes to mark yes or no.  (I suspect they checked yes.)

One day I held Noah by the shoulders, looked him in the eyes and said, "Noah, I am SO PROUD of you!" He just stood there staring back for the longest time, then with big ole' alligator tears in his eyes he gave me a tight, lingering bear hug and said, "Thank you so much!"

And that's when it hit me.  Yes, there actually is a name for Noah if both his parents are in prison.  Like all children, either way, he will always be a Child of God.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith... Galatians 3:26

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Encouragement comes in many shapes and sizes

Years ago when I was single and my daughter was in second grade, I decided I wanted to live on a horse farm and run it myself.  Actually, the only thing I brought to the job was a love for horses and the outdoors.  Beyond that I had nothing.

So we moved to a horse farm and did it anyway.  Farmers up and down the road grumbled about how I didn't know what I was doing.  This was the topic of local gossip, usually around the table at the local market.  "She doesn't know the first thing about bush hogging or getting up hay!"  And they were so right.

But then there was my dad.  He told me from the time I was little that I could do anything I put my mind to - even be president one day.  (It wasn't until I was in my thirties that it occurred to me this was probably not going to happen.)  Did he point out to me that I knew nothing about taking on a horse farm?  Did he remind me that I had a Fine Arts degree and didn't know the first thing about running a tractor?

No.  You know what he did?  He gave me this pocketknife.  He believed in me and knew I would need it for the tremendous challenge I had taken on.  This little knife lived in my pocket every single day for the next four years.  It cut the twine off thousands of bales of hay - the ones I tossed up on the trailer behind the John Deere tractor I learned to drive.

From the day I was born I had someone encouraging me and believing in me.  But many of the women who come to Blue Monarch never had that.  In fact, they quite possibly had someone telling them they were worthless and would never amount to anything.  I can't even count the number of times I have complimented a woman on something she has done and she's tearfully responded with, "No one has ever told me anything like that."  Sadly, she's telling the truth.

Charms by Wanda Webb
Here at Blue Monarch we encourage, we believe in miracles, we affirm, we build up, and we celebrate accomplishments.  Just like my pocketknife became a symbol of courage for me, the charms we give out for significant achievements are symbols of courage for the amazing women we serve.  They are proud to wear them and proud to show them to their children.  For some, it's the first time they have completed something and have a token to show for it.
The courage it takes to willfully walk into a strange place with your children and submit to a totally new way of life in every aspect - the way you spend your time, the way you spend your money, the way you parent your children, the way you interact with others, the manner in which you resolve conflict, even the meals you feed your children - well, that takes way more courage than trying to run a horse farm when you don't know what you're doing.  And for that - I applaud the incredible women we serve.  They are truly my heroes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"I'm trying to do the Lord's work, (bad word)!"

In the beginning of my Blue Monarch journey, I was on a pretty exciting and totally unpredictable roller coaster ride.  Seemed like I would begin every day with a question and before the day was out a perfect stranger would give me the answer or it would suddenly show up out of nowhere.  Money came in from unexpected places.  Miracles were around every corner and rainbows filled my days.  It was great!  This "doing the Lord's work" was awesome.

But as time went by I became overwhelmed with the enormity of my responsibility to raise the money we needed to operate.  I hired people with the disclaimer up front that they may be laid off any day - only to lay them off two weeks later because we didn't have the funds to pay them.  I remember one year going door to door to raise enough money to pay our tiny staff.  The pressure was awful.  
I vividly remember eating lunch one day, looking at all the women and children around the table and wondering to myself, “where are they going to go if we can’t pay the electric bill?”  It was agonizing.

There were many days I was angry that God had given me this difficult assignment and actually felt it was more of a punishment than a blessing.  I sometimes felt like saying, “Get out of my way!  I’m trying to do the Lord’s work, (bad word)!”

One day I was at home having one of those angry conversations with God – the kind where you’re screaming and crying – the kind you hopefully have in the privacy of your own home.  "WHY DID YOU ASK ME TO DO THIS IF YOU WEREN'T GOING TO GIVE ME THE TOOLS TO MAKE IT HAPPEN, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!" 

Then suddenly I heard God speak to me.  He said, "YOU are the one who makes it so hard - by not trusting me."  Hmmm... 
That stopped me in my tracks.  I began to consider this and realized I had been trying to do it all on my own.  No wonder it was so flippin’ hard!  I had not trusted God.  I had taken on the entire responsibility myself and foolishly thought I could do it alone. 

At that point I began learning to rely on God for direction.  I started every day with a trust fall that was not easy, but it did become easier as time went on.  What I discovered was that when I truly trusted God, things turned out better than I could have planned myself, and guess what - money began to come in from places I never imagined. 

I finally realized that God had not asked me to do this as punishment.  He had actually given me a priceless gift and beautiful blessing.  I had been offered the amazing privilege of seeing His tremendous work in the lives of the women and children we served and all I had done was agonize over the difficulty of it. 

As my faith grew stronger, not only did I personally develop a joy unlike any I had ever experienced, I began to really see the joy in the faces of the people who came to us for help, despite the fact their problems were much bigger than my own. 

There was the young woman who delighted in feeling snowflakes on her face because the last time it had snowed, she watched it from her jail cell window feeling hopeless and lost.

I saw a mother overcome with joy for her healthy baby that was not born addicted to drugs. 


And I watched countless children show great joy over playing with our farm animals when just a few weeks before they were struggling with some pretty painful problems.

Truth is, joy is everywhere and at Blue Monarch you don’t have to look far to find it.  I’m just grateful for a loving, faithful, and patient God who gave me time to finally experience the great joy He wanted for me all along. 

I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  Until now you have not asked for anything in my name.  Ask and you will receive and your joy will be complete.  John 16: 23-24