From my front row seat

Thursday, December 13, 2018

It's never too late until it is.

Is dorky still a word?  When I was attending Franklin High School in Franklin, Tennessee, our new principal, Mr. Pike, came up with this "dorky" mantra that he thought, I suppose, would magically improve everyone's behavior.  He would gather us in the gym, get the drums from the marching band to back him up, and it would go like this...

"DO RIGHT!"  dum dee-dum...dee-dum dum
"DO RIGHT!"  dum dee-dum...dee-dum dum

The sophomore and junior classes would yell and chant along with him, even stomp on the bleachers to make more noise.  My entire senior class, on the other hand, would stubbornly sit silent with frozen facial expressions.  You see, The Fonz was our role model, and he was the epitome of cool and rebellion.  He wouldn't be caught dead saying something like that - and neither would we.  (In fact, in the picture above, some of the senior guys are dressed like cheerleaders to make fun of it.)  It always intrigued me, though, that Mr. Pike thought doing right could just be spoken into existence by yelling it out loud.

Many years later, after I had gotten a few years of Blue Monarch under my belt, I reached a really worn out place in my spirit.  The level of frustration and disappointment with a young non-profit that served this population was overwhelming some days, and there were times when I considered giving up.  One day in particular stands out in my memory because it was my daughter who got me back on track.  I was venting to her and said, "I don't know why I keep doing this!"

Mary Susan's response was short and simple.  "Because it's the right thing to do, Mommy."

Sometimes I think we misinterpret the word, "right."  It implies that the opposite is "wrong." But I don't think that's always the case.  Sometimes right means best.  Let's take my example, for instance.  If I had walked away from what God clearly called me to do, I don't know that I would call that wrong.  This is what I do know, however.  I would have missed out on so many amazing blessings God had in store for me.  

Just this morning I was looking for a specific photo on my phone.  As I scrolled through the many photographs I had collected, I saw lots of snapshots of the tremendous blessings I had received over the past year.  For example, I couldn't imagine missing all the times little Gauge came into my office so we could pray together.  Those moments are so special to me.  I would hate to think I had not seen Maleak work so hard on his anger to become the sweet boy who actually enjoys playing the piano and making excellent grades in school.  What a shame it would have been if I had not seen Trenton this year as a robust teenager after I watched him nearly die at birth - the night he miraculously survived through prayer.  Honestly, I could go on and on all day with stories just like these.

One thing that has always struck me, when I am out speaking to church congregations in particular, is that I sometimes spot individuals across the sanctuary with very emotional tears streaming down their faces.  One might assume they are crying over the moving story they just heard.  But oftentimes they will come up to me afterwards and say, "For a long time I have been feeling like God is asking me to (fill in the blank here) and I haven't had the willingness or the courage to step out and do it."  It is so obvious this is causing them great turmoil.

It always makes me so sad because I know, firsthand, they may be missing out on some pretty incredible things God has in store for them.  They aren't doing anything "wrong" but the "right" thing would bring them so much more!

Let's take the Christmas story, for example.  Ever since I was a young child, I have imagined Mary and Joseph, already exhausted, going from door to door looking for a place to stay.  The fact they ended up in a stable (or whatever scholars want to debate it was), means there were some who took a good look at Mary, about to give birth any minute, with her scruffy husband who probably looked pretty overwhelmed and worried, and said, "No, sorry," and shut the door.  I've even wondered how many could have given up their own rooms when they saw Mary's condition but decided not to help and looked the other way.  That wasn't necessarily wrong - but look how amazing it would have been to do the right thing and let them in?  Can you imagine being the ones who later realized the unbelievable blessing they missed because they couldn't find a way to say yes to the parents of baby Jesus?  How many of them felt a nudging to do the right thing and simply ignored it?

One day recently my husband and I stopped at the local airport to watch some skydivers.  As we were standing at the fence watching another group land with their colorful parachutes, a twenty-something girl walked up next to us with her boyfriend.  "Are you going to jump today?" she asked.

At first I looked around to see if she was talking to someone else because I was surprised she could see me.  (I have recently come to realize, there must have been a day over the past few years when I suddenly became invisible to younger people.)  Could she actually see me?

"Well, to tell you the truth, I have always wanted to skydive," I told her.  "So I wanted to watch for a while to see if I could do it."

She leaned over to me, cocked her head to one side, and with a voice one would typically reserve for babies or puppies, she said, "Well, it's never too late."

Too late for what?  What did she mean, never too late.  At first I thought she must have meant the time of day, but then I realized she meant that even though I was so old, it was never too late for me.  What?!  (Naturally I had to resist the temptation to march in and sign up on the spot.)

Isn't it great that it's never too late to do the right thing - to say yes to what God is asking us to do?  Sad thing is, though, it may be too late for the blessing that could have happened yesterday.  Let that sink in.  It may be too late for the blessing that could have happened yesterday.

There is a chalkboard on the front of my desk so children can enjoy drawing when they come into my office.  One day I found this sweet message, written by a young boy who had just been reunited with his mother, a day I will never forget.  What he wrote immediately brought tears to my eyes because I could hear my daughter's voice from many years ago..."Because it's the right thing to do, Mommy."  

A few days later I happened to catch this photo of that same boy.  He and his mother were so happy to be back together, they couldn't stop hugging each other.  Turns out, this boy and my daughter were right.  It was the right thing to do and I'm glad I did it.  After all...what if this had been yesterday's blessing?  Just look at what I would have missed.

Thank you, Lord, for all the many people who listen to you and support Blue Monarch through their time, their resources, and their prayers.  We ask that you bless them abundantly as you continue to bless us.  Amen

Thursday, November 15, 2018

"What prayer did I pray that got me this?"

Okay, so I admit it.  I am stubborn and once I set my mind on something, I don't typically give up until I get it.  However, this can sometimes get me into trouble.

Back in my horse riding days I loved to take my horse on week long camping trail rides.  These trail rides were enormously fun - loads of people from all over with horses of every kind, western dances that went late into the night, and food galore.  There was one particular ride that was located next to a river and this was where I learned to ride a swimming horse, which I thought was the greatest thrill of my life.

Through the years I became so accustomed to pulling a horse trailer, I could back my trailer down the entire length of my 250' barn without looking back.  Sometimes people would even hire me to transport their horses for them.  

However, my first attempt at hauling a horse was a complete disaster.  I had counted on an unreliable boyfriend to take my horse to a trail ride and he let me down at the last minute.  Jerk.  Okay, then I will do it myself.  Never mind that I had never hauled a horse, had never pulled a trailer behind my truck, and it was more than a two-hour drive.

So I rented an old, rusty trailer from a guy down the road, loaded my horse, Erlita, and off we went.

Pretty soon it started raining.  Torrential rain.  What I didn't realize was that the trailer had a terrible roof leak and there was no rubber mat on the floor under all that straw.  (I later learned the guy stopped renting it with the mat because people would steal it.)  You can probably guess what happened.  The floor of the trailer eventually got as slick as glass and my horse's metal shoes turned into ice skates.

I figured this out when I made the first sharp turn and Erlita fell with such a huge crash that it violently shook the truck.  Not sure what had happened, I quickly pulled over, ran back and found my sweet horse sprawled out on the floor of the trailer with her neck still attached to a lead rope.

I can tell you, it is no small task getting a 1,000 pound horse back on its feet in a two-horse trailer with a slick floor, and it's impossible to do without getting your feet trampled.  She and I struggled and struggled and both of us ended up completely out of breath before it was all over.

This awful scene repeated itself three more times before I got to my destination - almost five hours later.  It seemed that no matter how slowly I drove, every sharp curve caused the same terrible fall.  By the time we arrived, Erlita had stopped even trying to get up, which was actually pretty smart of her but frightening to see.  We both looked like we had been in a battle.  Erlita and I were soaking wet, covered in each other's blood, and I was afraid my horse was crippled for life.  (She did end up with a permanent bum knee, which was a daily reminder to me.)

Throughout this entire ordeal I prayed over and over, "Please, Lord!  Help me!"  He had the power to stop the madness but apparently chose to let us suffer instead.

Later that night as I described this whole traumatic experience around a campfire, I started to remember things that I had overlooked as they took place.  I suddenly realized, every single time I found myself struggling on the side of the road, immersed in bad words and tears, some nice person stopped to offer his help.

How did I not notice that?  I was so stubborn to do it myself that I turned down every offer with a short, "No, thank you," barely even looking up.  Not one time did I consider accepting any help.

Wow.  So my prayers were answered three times and I didn't even notice.

This is probably why one of my favorite stories in the Bible is from Acts 12 when Peter was in prison.  Naturally he prayed for his release.  But when an angel actually showed up, slapped him on the leg to wake up and get out, he did not believe it was real.  It had to be a dream.

Then there is more.  When he arrived at the home of his friends who were also praying for his release, they did not believe it was even Peter.  Surely it was his angel, or I'm sure some believed it was his ghost.  Couldn't possibly be what they were praying for.

How many times do we continue to pray for something we are already holding in our hands?  And how many times do we turn down God's help because we are determined to do it ourselves?

Yesterday I had the privilege of listening to our women take turns expressing what they were thankful for.  As they went around the circle, here were some of the moving stories that touched my heart:

"I am thankful that I am not in jail this Thanksgiving."
"I'm thankful I won't spend Christmas in jail, away from my children, ever again!"
"I am thankful for God's correction."
"I am thankful my daughter and I are back together."
"I'm thankful we are a family again."

So this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my front row seat at the greatest show on earth because I get to learn from my greatest teachers - the beautiful and amazing women we serve.  You see, they have the courage to ask for help, the humility to receive it, and the wisdom to know an answered prayer when they see one.  My prayer is to be more like them.

Lord, thank you for my heroes that I have the privilege to serve.  Amen

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Soft Place to Land with a Crashing Thud

One day I overheard my daughter describing something I used to do when she was a child.  It was a little surprising to hear it from her perspective, how it appeared to her then.

For most of Mary Susan's childhood, we lived on a horse farm, which I ran as a single mom.  We boarded over thirty horses on about 120 acres.  Although we have lots of wonderful memories from this season in our lives, there were many days when I got very frustrated and angry;  the tractor would break down before I had finished bush-hogging, the water hoses would freeze, or a stubborn horse might decide to live the rest of his life in a horse trailer.  And then of course, there was the occasional boarder who trusted me with her horse child and was upset to find a runaway ball of horse manure hiding in the corner of the stall.

So here is Mary Susan's description of what would happen:  "There were days when I would be in my bedroom and Mommy would run up the stairs, scream as loud as she could into a pillow, and then run back out the door with no explanation."

I don't think I ever thought about how that looked to her.  At the time, it was the best way I could think of to handle my anger.  And actually, it worked.  I would usually run back out the door feeling much better.

Anger isn't something I feel like I struggle with, until I look at my collection of wounded cookware.  I have a crock-pot that has to be propped up on one corner because the foot was broken off during a pretty rough trip across the kitchen floor.  (It had the nerve to take up too much space in the cabinet.)  And just take a look at this toaster.  It only had one job to do and couldn't even do that, so I had no choice but to get even.  And I did.  

There is something that happens at Blue Monarch almost every time a new family moves in.  The children we serve often show up with an overwhelming amount of anger.  They are angry they have been neglected.  Some children may be angry they were sexually abused and no one protected them.  Perhaps they are mad they don't know what to do about this ugly secret.  They are possibly upset about the things someone did to their mother.  The list can go on, and on, and on.  How does it come out?  In very loud tantrums of screaming and yelling.  There may also be punching, spitting, throwing, and stomping.  It can get pretty ugly sometimes but it is almost always aimed at the mother.  After all, they may have seen someone else treat her this way.  They learned it.

Recently, we had a new family move in.  The mother was completely overwhelmed with three young children, none of whom listened to her, no matter how loud she got.  Our mothers are required to keep up with their children and know where they are at all times.  But hers would scatter like chickens.  She would sling one onto her hip, grab another by the hand, but how would she catch the third?  Once one child started screaming and crying, they would all scream and cry, just because.  As I was leaving one day midst this chaos, she asked me with desperation and tears in her eyes, "Miss Susan, can I please just take them to my room?"  They had not even had dinner yet but she was ready to give up and I could see she was considering leaving.

"First of all, giving up will not change anything.  But you need to listen to me.  This WILL get better, I promise.  If you will use the tools we give you, and stick to it consistently, I promise this will get better.  And it will surprise you how quickly it does."  It actually surprises me, too, even though I've seen it happen many, many times.

Day after day I saw the same scene outside my window.  This mother's two-year-old would stomp out the back door and scream as loud as she could in the backyard outside my office.  I was fascinated that tiny, little person could make such a loud noise.  One day I sketched a picture of her screaming mouth because it reminded me so much of Charlie Brown's.  Almost a perfect trapezoid.

Another day recently, we had a middle school boy who was angry he didn't get his way.  His mother stayed strong.  I was proud of her.  She never lost her temper with him, and she stood her ground despite the fact he yelled for a straight hour and forty-five minutes.  It's true.  I timed him.  (Thankfully he was outside for the most part.)

This is what I think is so amazing, though.  That little girl screaming in the backyard?  After only two weeks at Blue Monarch, with the mother consistently putting into practice the tools she was given, this precious child stopped screaming.  She is now one of the happiest children I have ever seen because she finally has what she needs from her mother.  Her attention.  No need to scream for it.

And that middle school boy?  He may be yelling to express his anger, but a few months ago I saw him leave with handcuffs in the back of a patrol car because his anger was so out of control.  It was one of the saddest moments I have had at Blue Monarch and one I will never forget.  But through our rich programs for this family, he is handling his anger much, much better now and has even become a straight-A student!  Isn't that incredible? 

Our children have many reasons to be angry.  Their own stories may begin with, "There were days when I would be in my bedroom and Mommy would run up the stairs and scream as loud as she could...", but the story ends quite differently.  Just now I wrote several examples of how this story tragically ended for some of our children, but then deleted them.  Truth is, we don't really want to think about that, do we?  And whatever you have imagined right now, I can almost promise you, the truth is worse than that.

I often wonder where our mothers and children would be if they had not come to Blue Monarch.  For some of these children, I think they would probably have been abused, simply because that angry, screaming child might become someone's toaster.  If not for Blue Monarch, it's quite possible that ten-year-old boy might have ended up in juvenile detention on the other side of Memphis, the only place in the state that will take children that young.

Instead, our families are given a soft place to land, even when they land with a crashing thud.  Blue Monarch completely changes the trajectory for the entire family!  We provide the daily hands-on coaching for a mother who is trying to parent sober for the first time.  Our gifted counselor meets with the child individually, and with the family together, so they can express their hurts and needs in a healthy way.  The mothers and children are given effective tools to manage their anger in a way that doesn't cause even more damage.  With time and lots of patience, they learn to trust one another again, or maybe for the first time ever.  They develop a personal relationship with Christ, learning to trust Him when they are hurting, instead of striking out at each other.  And I really love this part - they heal and recover together - not apart.

Yesterday as I was leaving Blue Monarch, I spotted something in the distance that caught my eye.  Out in the middle of our big yard was that same mother with her three young children.  At first I thought something terrible had happened.  Why were they on the ground?  Then I realized, they were all rolling around on the grass together, every one of them laughing and playing like it was the most fun they had ever had.  When they saw that I was watching, they all sat up and waved at me with smiles that beamed from ear to ear - then quickly went back to what they were doing, piling on top of each other in one big, ball of fun.  

As I continued to watch, I could almost hear the children saying one day, "There were days...when Mommy would..." But this time, I believe the story is going to have a really happy ending.

Thank you, Lord, for showing us so powerfully, that children need to be able to recover with their mothers.  Thank you for the tremendous healing we see every single day, and for all the anger that turns into love, right before our very eyes.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Why is this still a mystery?

Have you noticed what a sensitive, hot topic the treatment of addiction has become?  Seems there are a number of theories floating around out there about the best way to treat addiction and everyone is passionate about their own solution as the best answer.  

We often find ourselves at odds with the medical community.  And in fact, some of our staff recently spent an entire evening debating addiction treatment with a couple of physicians until I finally realized we would never even meet in the middle.  We couldn't even agree on the definition of "sobriety."  To us sobriety means completely free from drugs - all drugs.  

Because we see women gain complete and total freedom from addiction, it's frustrating that we don't all agree on the path of getting there.  We wish everyone could experience the freedom we see here because it's truly life changing! 

However, it takes the courage to feel the pain to get to the finish line.  Not numb the pain - feel the pain.  It's the ones who go through that grueling process, with God's help, who reach the other side and begin a life without addiction.  

Here is a blog post I wrote a few years ago that addressed this very issue.  If you missed it then, I'd like to share it with you now.  It still applies.  And the answer is still the same.
A Standard for Measuring True Grit

For some reason my great-grandmother was always called "Kay" when that was actually her last name.  She was tiny, practically deaf, a widow for thirty years before she died at the age of 93 – and she was tough as nails. 

Kay always wore a handmade bonnet when she worked outside, and as a child I found her collection of colorful bonnets endlessly fascinating.  She made a child-sized bonnet for me to wear, which I proudly wore when I was with her but quickly hid in my closet when I got home and it suddenly lost its appeal.  Somehow everything at her home was different, almost like I had entered another world and time.  Kay remained in another era and never embraced modern conveniences, including indoor plumbing.

Mornings at Kay’s house were sacred.  She always started her day way before daybreak and silently prepared her breakfast, which was the same every day:  one piece of dark toast topped with a fried egg cooked in bacon grease, a slice of tomato, and a cup of strong coffee.  She never said a word as she went through this morning ritual and except for the fact she placed an identical plate in front of me, there was no indication she even noticed I was there.  

Kay had grey hair that hung way below her waist, which she wore in a tightly wound braid on the back of her head.  There was only one occasion that I saw her hair down and when I remarked that she looked like a witch I was quickly reprimanded by my grandmother and never said it again.   It was merely an observation…  

Kay’s routine was the same every day.  After her morning breakfast routine we wouldn’t see her again until lunch.  She checked on the cows, she worked in her massive vegetable garden, she tended to her chickens, or she occasionally worked in the family sawmill.   

One day Kay did not show up for lunch.  This had never happened.  So off we went on a massive search, afraid she may have had a heart attack or gotten hurt.  The search became more and more frantic until we finally returned to the house to discover something I would never forget.

When we walked in, Kay was sitting with her left arm stretched across the kitchen table, exposing a nasty, open gash that ran almost the length of her forearm.  She was steadily sewing up her own arm with a large needle and black thread.  Except for the fact her hand was in a tight fist, there was no indication that this was anything more than just a necessary task that had to be done in order to fix a problem.  At that moment she became the standard by which to measure all strong and determined women.  

It’s no wonder that I’m reminded of this often as I watch the amazing women of Blue Monarch.  I imagine that they are repairing their own wounds in much the same way Kay did, and it takes nothing less than that same level of true grit and determination to heal - with each and every agonizing stitch. 
It’s painful to take an honest look at yourself and see how your choices may have hurt your children and the ones you love, especially when you can no longer numb the pain with drugs.  It’s sometimes unbearable to see the struggles your children are having because you were not giving them the care they so desperately needed.  It hurts to process memories of atrocities you have endured at the hands of people you should have been able to trust.  And it’s even harder to come to a point of true forgiveness that will eventually set you free from the pain.  

And it’s difficult beyond words to embrace an entirely new way of life in order to reach the point of freedom you want so badly that it almost takes your breath away.   

However, each step is like one more stitch toward healing and wholeness.  I have watched this process many, many times - and yet God’s healing power still amazes me!  Sometimes I think just one of these experiences could keep someone in therapy the rest of their lives.  But the women we serve throw themselves at the feet of Jesus and completely rely on Him to help them overcome their addictions, heal their broken hearts, and restore their relationships with their children who were also hurting.  They count on Him for true freedom.

So the truth is, I have met lots and lots of “Kays” at Blue Monarch.  I tell people all the time they are the most courageous women I have ever known.  But when I picture them sitting at the table with their wounded arms stretched across the table, stitching up one painful hurt after another, I also know that Jesus is sitting at the table with them - holding their hand with each and every stitch.   And that’s why they are healed.    

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.  Psalm 147:3

Thursday, August 30, 2018

What am I called if both my parents are in prison? An update...

Noah has been on my mind a lot lately.  I wrote this blog post about him three years ago and thought it would be fun to get an update on how he and his family are doing.  So yesterday I made arrangements to visit Noah and his two sisters after school.  Here's that blog post from 2015.  I believe you will see why he's so special to me...

"What am I called if both my parents are 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


Noah's mother did end up going to prison.  So for nearly three years, both of Noah's parents were incarcerated.  I ran into her a few months ago, working in a local thrift store with an ankle monitor around her leg.  She was still under house arrest, but she looked good and was staying clean.  Most importantly, she and her children were together again. 

So I called her yesterday morning to see if I could visit the kids after school.  Noah was the first to run out the door to give me a big hug.  He is so tall!  His beautiful sisters quickly joined him and they each fought for center stage to brag on their own, as well as each other's, accomplishments.  You could tell they were very close and had been through a lot together.  The three of them are quite a team.

I brought each of them snack bags of our granola.  They cheered, "Yay!  We LOVE your granola!"  Noah immediately tore into his bag and started crunching mouth fulls of granola.   

After we caught up on everyone's ages, Noah couldn't wait to show me how he could run on gravel barefooted, which was pretty amazing.  He told me all about playing soccer and wanted me to see how high he could kick a ball.  Also impressive.  "Did you know I was hit by lightning once?"  Yes, I certainly remembered that.  

Then I had the great pleasure of listening to the three of them share their favorite memories of Blue Monarch.  Their faces just glowed as they giggled and described playing in the snow when it was two feet tall.  "No, for real!"  And then there were all the wonderful stories of exploring our property every Wednesday afternoon with the college student volunteers.  They remembered the Swamp Monster and of course, Penelope the Tree, down by our pond.  Finally each of them described in great detail the magnificent day their mother won a prize.  It wasn't a particularly significant event, but they remembered it with enormous pride because she had won. 

I could see that on days we may have driven home thinking we had not made a difference, even the little things had been etched into their memories in a beautiful way.  Seeds had been planted that grew into big smiles even three years later.  Blue Monarch had created a "new normal" for them that they will never forget.  

As I drove away, my heart was full of mixed emotions, and then I realized - the best thing about their time at Blue Monarch was that Noah and his sisters learned they had a Heavenly Father, just when they needed Him the most.  And God knew the timing was perfect all along.



Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Seatbelt is fastened. Bring it on!

One of the most common questions we get is, "What is a typical day at Blue Monarch?"  This always makes me laugh because there really is no such thing as a "typical day".  Honestly, it's like I crawl out of bed, after saying a prayer of course, and from that point on I just hope I remembered to fasten my seatbelt.  It's going to be a fast and crazy ride that will probably take me places I never imagined.

I often regret that our supporters don't get to experience what we get to see on a daily basis.  So I decided to take you along with me on just one day last week.  Don't forget to fasten your seatbelt, though, because you may get what I call "Blue Monarch whiplash".  You never know if you're going to see the greatest miracle you've ever seen.  Or if you're going to get your heart broken into a million pieces.  And both could happen on the same day.

First of all, as I pull into the gravel driveway at Blue Monarch, I am immediately greeted by a nasty, dead armadillo.  Smack dab in the middle of the driveway.  I can see from the tire marks in the grass that no one knows what to do about it.  Sam, our wonderful dog, is looking a little suspect so I suppose he is responsible for this.  Nice.  A quick problem to solve on my way in...

"Can someone please move the bikes away from the door?  And there's a goat crying.  Would someone please go check on it?"

As soon as I get the lamps turned on in my office, I get a call from a very special Blue Monarch friend.  He offers to purchase a car for Marie so she can get to work.  Marie is currently in our WINGS Program for graduates and for many weeks we have been getting her to and from work through a complicated science project made up of staff members and dedicated volunteers.  Yay!  Marie will have a car now!  She is going to be so excited.  

The car has to be picked up today so I think we should run get the car after Kate and I meet a donor for lunch.  In fact, we should drive it to the place Marie works and surprise her with it.  Yes, let's do it.  What fun.

Kate and I have lunch scheduled with an enthusiastic, faithful donor and friend, so we gather some things she needs us to bring.  She is on a mission to introduce some of her friends to Blue Monarch, so we want to send her well equipped with lots of information.  I love this woman's passion for Blue Monarch and I'm looking forward to seeing her.  She had a birthday recently so everyone signs a card for us to take.  I catch up on some emails and discuss some resident issues with the program staff before heading out the door.

While Kate and I enjoy rich conversation with this woman, who is one of the most fascinating women I've ever met, I glance down at my phone and notice I have a lengthy text from one of our graduates.  It appears frantic, so I excuse myself and go to the restroom to read it.  She is completely distraught because a fourteen-year-old boy has been sexually abusing her seven-year-old daughter.  No!  He has been charged with rape of a child but the judge basically gives him a slap on the wrist.  This is outrageous.

This mother is in a rage, as I can only imagine.  My mind immediately goes back to the day this precious little girl was born.  I held her in my arms in her most innocent, purist moment, totally unaware that seven years later her innocence would be stolen from her in such a vile way.  

I text the mother back to let her know we will do whatever we can to help her.  A little stunned, I continue to quietly process this terrible news as I return to the table and eat my barbeque as if nothing's happened.  My heart is broken and I am incredibly angry.  I need to make some calls as soon as possible.

After we say our goodbyes, Kate and I leave to pick up Marie's new car and take it to where she works.  We explain to the receptionist why we need to see Marie and she immediately becomes teary eyed.  She says, "I pray for Blue Monarch every day."  The supervisor gets Marie for us and as I lead her to the car, Marie's co-workers follow her.  Before I know it, we have a parking lot full of people crying and hugging Marie.

Marie says, "I can't believe this!  Just yesterday my supervisor said she had a word for me from God, that if I needed something, I should ask for it.  So I prayed last night that God would somehow provide a car for me!"  She laughed through the tears, "But that's not all.  I told God I really wanted a Honda because it gets such good mileage!"  And of course, the car just happens to be a Honda Accord.

It is so sweet to see Marie's co-workers lift her up and share in her excitement.  She's in good hands here.  Thank you, Lord.

I'm anxious to see Xeven's reaction, Marie's son.  Their relationship has improved so much in their time at Blue Monarch, it's hard to believe they are the same family.  When Xeven sees the car he immediately begins making fist pumps in the air.  "Yes!  Yes!"  You can tell he is so proud of his mama.  Man, I'm glad I didn't miss seeing that.

Then I learn that the Department of Children's Services has decided to allow Jessica to get her two boys back TODAY.  Wow!  We didn't expect it to happen that quickly, so we scramble to get bunk beds moved into her room right away.

Time seems to crawl by.  They are delayed because sadly, a child in DCS custody has run away from home and they must find him before bringing Jessica's boys.  We say a quick prayer for that child.  

While we wait, I check on the distraught mom to see if the court provided for her daughter to get counseling.  There are many unanswered questions and hard to understand answers.  Part of this mother's agony is because she also experienced the same thing at a young age so there are many painful layers to this trauma.  My heart hurts for all of them.  I'm angry, sad, and even a little sick to my stomach over it.  Please Lord, heal this little girl.

Meanwhile, Jessica waits, and waits, and waits at the window for her boys to arrive.  How many times have I seen this sight - a mother waiting at this same window for the first sight of her children?  I realize whenever I've seen this, there are always other mothers surrounding her who understand the pain, the fear, and the agonizing anticipation.

Jessica has not seen her boys in 18 months so I'm certain she has fears they will not remember her or even like her.  I should tell her that in fifteen years of this, not once have I seen a child who didn't immediately cling to his mother, even when there were years of separation.  That always seems like such a miracle to me.

Finally!  Here comes the car and Jessica rushes out the door.  The other moms want to run out there with her but I encourage them to give her some space.  So instead, they crowd at the railing and watch from the porch with tears in their eyes.

Immediately both boys jump out of the car and hug their mom.  I can see that Jessica is trying very hard not to cry in front of them, but tears of joy still cover her face.

I have seen this amazing scene over and over - in fact, over 250 children have been reunited with their mothers through our program.  But never have I grown tired of this powerful moment.  It still reaches in and grabs my heart like it did the very first time.  

Okay, it's 6:30 and I should get home now.  Thank you, Lord, for another "typical day at Blue Monarch".  I wouldn't have missed it for the world - and I can't wait to see what you have up your sleeve for tomorrow.  Bring it on!    

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  Philippians 4:6

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Endangered Unicorn Daddy

Dear Daddy on the Phone,

I believe I owe you an apology.  Despite the fact you call nearly every single afternoon to talk to your son, you have somehow slipped completely under my radar.  You'd think I would have noticed you before now because you are actually quite rare - in fact, you belong to a group that is virtually extinct.

Many years ago I went on an exciting photographic safari in Kenya.  Right away we were told to look for a particular rhinoceros because it was extremely rare.  The only one in the area lived alone, which I found quite sad, and it was very old, so sightings of this amazing creature were scarce and perhaps soon to be impossible.

However, one day, way off in the distance I spotted the famed rhinoceros.  Our driver carefully crept closer so we could get a photograph.  Apparently the powerful animal was quite shy.

Once we got a little closer, we could see the massive horn and weathered hide.  It was quite a sight to see.  I remember thinking, "This is like finding a unicorn!"

We often refer to something rare and exceptional as a unicorn - so I hope you are not offended, but I now think of you as a "Unicorn Daddy".  You see, one day recently when you were talking to your little boy on the phone, I stopped what I was doing and tried to remember how many times I had seen this sight - a child talking to his father on the phone.  Something seemed out of place.

I began to reflect back over the hundreds of children we had served over the past fifteen years.  Had I seen this before?  I thought...and thought...and thought.  Truth is, I could only remember four fathers who had taken a positive and consistent role in their children's lives.  Four.

I think we get used to assuming all dads are in jail or perhaps they are just a dim memory of the mothers'.  How many times have I heard, "His father just went to jail for a long time," as the explanation when a child is acting out?  We have seen that behavior so many times I think we just assume, "Oh, of course, that explains everything."  Again.

Many times our boys show up desperately trying to be the father to the younger siblings.  He may have assumed that role as soon as he noticed there was no father in the home.  But that must surely be confusing.  How do you become a father if you don't know what that looks like?

That's where we come in.  We have a very robust Children's Program, full of adventure, education, and individualized care.  We provide on-site counseling.  We place mentors with our boys so they can learn how to respect women, how to treat others - how to put a worm on a hook.  But is that enough?

Well, we may not be totally replacing the dad.  But I do believe we are making good future fathers.

The boys we serve are growing up in an entirely different environment than their fathers probably did.  They are surrounded by people who love and respect them, who provide a healthy, structured routine, and by people who lift them up.  They are able to observe their mothers, as they become healthier parents.  And most importantly, they learn about their Heavenly Father, who loves them and will never leave them, no matter what.

Our kids, who lived with us as toddlers, are now visiting us as teenagers.  And you know what they have to say?  "We want our children to live like we did at Blue Monarch, and we want our grandchildren to live like that, too."  Those are some good mommies and daddies in the making.

So, Unicorn Daddy, the next time I hear your voice on the phone, I will take the time to thank you because there are lots of children who are not getting that phone call, and sadly they never will. I guess I'm just now figuring out what your little boy has known all along - you are one rare and special dad.  And if I had been paying attention, I would have seen that in your child's face the whole time.


Lord, please bless our little boys, that they will get the firm foundation they need to become good and healthy fathers to their own children one day.  And thank you for the daddies who are there for their children, even through the struggles of their own.  Amen

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"Don't they know about birth control?"

"Why do they have so many babies?  Don't they know about birth control?"

I'm occasionally asked these awkward questions so I recently put together a survey to settle this once and for all.  I polled the women we had living with us at the time.  Nothing was surprising.  It was a collection of obvious responses:
  • "I was so young I didn't know anything about birth control."
  • "I was raped."
  • "I was using drugs and didn't think about it." 
And a very common one:
  • "I wanted someone to love me."
The mothers we serve are often judged because of the poor choices they made that affected their children.  And of course, there's always the inevitable observation about all the good people out there who desperately want children but cannot conceive, and yet this mother who has made all sorts of mistakes is allowed to have baby after baby.  Yes, it's the elephant in the room.  And it's a big one.

But this is the comment that occasionally rears its ugly head, feels like a punch in the stomach, and brings out the Mama Bear in me.  "They should not be allowed to have any more children!  They should be sterilized."


The problem is, it's impossible for me to have an unbiased opinion about this issue because I know, personally, hundreds of precious children who would not be with us today if that were a solution.  They have names.  They run into my office and say some of the funniest things I have ever heard.  They smile, they laugh, and they cling to their mothers as if she is all that matters in the world.  Their lives have value.  And quite frankly, it is not up to us to decide who can have children and who cannot.

Besides, at what point would one cross over into forbidden motherhood?  Who would make that decision?  What about the fathers - would they also be sterilized?

Truth is, I have known plenty of mothers who were just as destructive to their children, but because they weren't drug addicts and their dysfunction or abuse was behind a much nicer door, no one questioned whether they should be allowed to have more.

At the end of the day, it's really hard to understand some of these questions and only God can answer them for us.

What I do know, however, is that the broken families CAN be healed.  I've seen it happen many times!  That's why we consider every day around here to be Mother's Day - not just one Sunday in May.  

We have seen that it is possible for a mother to become more nurturing to her children.  The mess really can be cleaned up and the family can be made whole.  There's a name for it.  It's called redemption - and it's a beautiful gift from our Heavenly Father.

Let me show you what it looks like.  Just take a peek at one family's amazing example...

So does anyone have the right to say this little girl shouldn't have been born?  I do know the answer to that question...and I believe one day Aria will tell me I am right. 

Lord, thank you for the beautiful sanctity of life that you reveal to us every single day.  Thank you for showing us over and over that through you, we can forever change the life of a child by changing the life of a mother.  Amen   

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The High Price of Thinking You're Batman

What do John Glenn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Batman have in common?  When I was a kid, I wanted to be all three of them.  John Glenn was my hero so naturally I wanted to be an astronaut one day, until that dream was shattered by my obvious challenges in math.  (Many years later I had the great privilege of meeting John Glenn at his home and that remains one of my greatest thrills.  I will never forget all his magazine covers hanging in dime store frames down the hallway as if they were ordinary family photos.)

Then there was Elizabeth Taylor.  For whatever reason, as a child I was absolutely fascinated with her multiple husbands - and I confess, I chipped away at that goal through the years until I decided to stop at three.  That's plenty.

But it was Batman who probably influenced me the most when I finally got my driver's permit, the minute I turned fifteen years old.  A few days later, while my parents were gone, I decided to try out the car.  My family lived in a quiet subdivision on a dead end street, which looked like a perfect spot to practice some of the Batmobile maneuvers I had seen on TV.

I grabbed my little brother and put him in the car with me.  Not sure if I wanted an accomplice, or if I was stretching the "extra driver" requirement, but he was going with me.  I pulled the harmless looking baby blue Volkswagen sedan onto the street and decided to see how fast I could go between our driveway and the cul-de-sac.

Stomping on the gas pedal, we peeled down the street and when we reached the end, I stomped on the brake pedal, yanked the steering wheel to the left, and let the car spin until we did a complete 360.  It was awesome.  Naturally I wanted to do it again and again.  My brother tried to bail at one point but I grabbed him by the collar and jerked him back inside the car.  By golly, we were in this together.  (His version is a little more dramatic.)

After a few trips up and down the street, spinning around and spewing gravel everywhere, it was on one of those trips back that I accidentally over shot the driveway.  The car violently bounced off the culvert and landed in the yard.  Needless to say, we left behind skid marks and tire tracks that were impossible to repair before my parents got home - so it wasn't a secret for long.  

This April 15th marks our 15th birthday at Blue Monarch, and I remember that day in 2003 like it was yesterday.  The closing on our beautiful property was a month before, but on April 15th, a day most people dread, I was able to finally get the key and open the door for the first time.

I will never forget that moment.  I turned the key in the lock and walked into the main house.  The previous owners had sold it completely furnished because they were moving out of the country so it already looked amazing.  Everything was spotless - but it was supernaturally quiet.  Not a sound. 

As I walked into the kitchen, I suddenly got an overwhelming, panicky feeling of "Oh, my word, what have I done?!"  The magnitude of this enormous undertaking hit me like a load of bricks.  I even got a little dizzy from the endless "what ifs" going through my head.

Then immediately God reminded me, "This is MY plan, not yours."  He showed me what the empty kitchen would look like one day when it was filled with women and children, lots of laughter, and completely full of life.  Whew!  That's a relief.  It was way too scary to think of as my plan.   

I glanced over to the sofa where I had met with the owners for the first time.  I remembered telling them how God had meticulously described Blue Monarch to me in a dream years before, and how I wanted to use the home for women and children to heal together and start a new life.  I felt they also had a right to know I was not a qualified buyer, and furthermore, I had absolutely no idea how I would find a million dollars for their three houses and fifty acres.  

When I finished my story, convinced the owners would feel they had cut the grass for no reason, the woman looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, "We always knew God asked us to build this place for someone else to use one day - and we always felt it would be for women who were hurting.  So we're just glad you finally showed up."  It was in this powerful moment that I realized this thing had a life of its own and I was simply along for the ride.  (To this day I can't tell that story without getting the same chills I had that day.)

Miraculously, God sent an amazing couple who helped me purchase the property, even though to them, I was nothing more than a stranger with an ambitious plan on paper.  Then by 2014, with the help of many generous donors, we were able to pay off this debt.  Yay!

But what an amazing ride it's been.  I have seen lots of babies born who most likely would have died if their mothers had not come to Blue Monarch.  I have seen women find complete freedom from hideous traumas and harmful addictions.  I have seen over 250 children reunited with their mothers when they were inches away from never seeing each other again.  The miracles have been so remarkable I sometimes feel like each day brings more blessings than any one person should expect in a lifetime.

As we have approached this 15-year milestone, I have also given a lot of thought to things I wish I had done better, things I wish I had done sooner, or things I hope I never do again.  I realize, even as a teenage organization, we still have a lot to learn.

This is the funny thing, though.  As I have recalled the absolute lowest points, and the times of adversity that brought me to my knees, they all lead to the same place.  Every single time, I placed myself in the driver's seat and tried to solve problems in my own power when I had only been given a learner's permit.  I never was given the authority to drive on my own. I should have trusted God more and I could have made things easier on myself and those around me.  I shouldn't have underestimated his power and abundant blessings because his plans are always grander than my own.  There should have been more prayers of, "Lord, please show me how to drive," instead of, "Lord, why did I just spin out?"  
God has been so good to us.  He has provided abundant blessings.  One of the special blessings I never overlook, though, is the daily reminder of his faithfulness.  Every evening as I walk through that kitchen that was once empty, but is now full of noisy women and children, I can't help but remember that powerful day fifteen years ago when God showed me that same, exact picture to illustrate that it was his plan and not mine.  Little did I know then, every one of those women and children would one day represent a breathtaking miracle.  But God must have smiled to himself in that moment, because he knew that all along.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."  
Jeremiah 29:11-13