New Beginnings

Crystal joined our family the day we signed papers to adopt Owen.  We didn’t know each other well, but it was clear we would spend the rest of our lives unpacking our stories and finding out how we all fit together.

Right now, she’s sitting on my couch.  The best part of this Easter is having her here with us.  Tonight, she helped Owen find Easter eggs.  She pushed the girls on the swings.  She ate my second batch of cookies after I burned the first.  And she read to us an essay she wrote for a scholarship.

She’s given me permission to share part of this essay on my blog.  Her life is one of courage and pain.  She’s a flower busting through concrete.  She is a picture of rebirth, renewal, and ultimately, the change Jesus came to bring.

It’s fitting to share her story on the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.  Her story is a picture of Easter—of how death is never the end and devastation doesn’t get the last word.  She named her essay “New Beginnings” which is the origin of the name “Owen”.

Here, in her own words, is her story.

The past eight months of my life have been about repair.  I am repairing the damage I’ve done to myself and what others have done to me.  I am in a wonderful program called “R.I.S.E”, (Reaching Independence through Self-Empowerment), that has been helping me turn my life around.

Overcoming a difficult childhood is a challenge in every aspect of my life.  My father was an abusive man and his alcoholism only made it worse.  When I was seven years old the abuse turned to me.  He started beating and molesting me, and after two years of watching what my father was doing to me, two of my stepbrothers decided they could get away with it, too.  For five years I endured mental and physical abuse at their hands, until I decided I could not take anymore.  I ran away at the age of 14 determined to never go back.  And I never did.

When I ran, I expected to be free from the life I was leaving, but instead the pain and trauma followed me and affected every decision I made.  At fifteen I was pregnant with my first son and by seventeen I was a mother of two, struggling to raise children when I was only a child myself.  I had no way to support my children because when I ran I left my birth certificate and social security card behind. 

With no way to prove who I was, I was stuck in an endless cycle of dependency.  I had to depend on men to take care of me and my children just to survive.  This led me into many relationships what were abusive and unhealthy.

The anger and hate was a part of every relationship, because every man I was with somehow reminded me of my father.  The anger and hate turned into a drug addiction to numb pain.  Prescription pain pills gave me the freedom I was looking for when I ran away.  At least at first, I believed they did. 

The pain and anger were temporarily forgotten, the tears dried up and the guilt and shame subsided for a time.  The pills gave me a false sense of happiness, until the addiction caused me to lose everything.  No matter how many pills I took, they were no longer distracting me from my problems.

Child Protective Services became involved in my life for many reasons.  By the age of twenty-one both of my boys were in foster care.  My inability to provide a safe and stable environment ultimately caused me to lose them.  I was in an abusive relationship and felt there was no way out.  I had no idea how to fight for my children or how to fight my addiction, so by twenty-two, my rights as a mother had been terminated.

The devastation, pain and confusion that followed were relentless.  The pills were no longer helping me like they once did but still I tried, desperate for relief.  My pill consumption was expensive and to support my habit, I was dancing in gentlemen’s clubs all over Fort Worth.  For two years, I completely lost myself and my shattered self-esteem and bruised ego kept driving me deeper into despair. 

I hit rock bottom when I delivered a third child—a very sick and premature boy.  Due to drug use during my pregnancy my son was born one month early and was in an incubator for six weeks, with an uncertainty on in if he would survive.  My life had spiraled out of control.  Once I realized I no longer had the ability to manage my problems, I prayed for help.  That night in the hospital as I lay in my bed, I cried out to God. 

I cried for the life I had been robbed of. 

I cried for the life I wanted, and I cried for the life I had lived.

The following day, help arrived in the form of a social worker with a question that would change my life.  She asked me if I had ever considered placing the child up for adoption.  With this idea I realized it would allow me to give my son the life I would never be able to provide him, given the obstacles I was already facing.  I did not want to just pass my problems down to another generation; I wanted to break the cycle. 

I found an adoption agency and the perfect family.  I know God’s hand was directing all of it because they were the first family I looked at and I knew they were it.  The Gibson’s never judged me.  They have loved both me and my son, Hunter, from the start.  We decided on an open adoption and the day we signed the papers I knew this was one decision I had gotten right. 

But in spite of this positive decision for Hunter, the grief was still palatable.  Without proper coping skills to help me with the deep loss I felt, I went back to using drugs to mask the pain once again.  It wasn’t long before I found myself in jail, a shattered and broken woman.

My arrest on June 19, 2013 was the answer to my prayers.  God heard my pleas and provided the perfect solution in a program called RISE—a program that is helping me heal.  I discovered the key to my happiness during the process of my healing.  God was and always has been the key.  Through my hard work and dedication to making my life better, many opportunities have appeared.  I have lived the life of the tragic and now I will live the life of the success.

 

 

Sneetches and Love

I became familiar with National Dr. Seuss day when my mom was a principal.  I thought it was weird that local celebrities or leaders in the community would drop in on an elementary school classroom to read a Dr. Seuss book to a bunch of kids.  Then this year, Ellia participated in her first National Dr. Seuss day.  And I was asked to come and read to the greatest and most energetic first grade class that has ever existed.

I read The Sneetches—a book about a group of creatures who were divided by the star or lack of star on their bellies.  I figured it would be a good time to address any bullies or pint-sized racists that might be in the room.  The inferior Sneetches pay money to try to look like the esteemed Sneetches by either getting a star stamped on their bellies or having a star removed.  In the end, all of the Sneetches are exhausted from using all their resources to try to be better than each other.

I don’t know why I couldn’t just read the book like a normal person.  Instead, I took it upon myself to interject social commentary.  I wanted to make sure the 6 and 7 year olds understood the implications for their own interpersonal relationships.  It’s obvious I shouldn’t work with children.

I finally left after launching a lengthy monologue about how no one is better than anyone else and our differences are to be celebrated.

On the way home, I thought about our efforts as parents or people over 12 to build a generation that disdains intolerance.

But tolerance is a small goal.  Tolerance is an okay starting place.  It keeps us from saying mean things or ostracizing the other, but tolerance is not love.

Accepting people’s differences—this is a bit better.  We can argue that acceptance would diminish unnecessary conflict or the deep wounds we inflict.  But it’s still not the full picture of love.

Love includes tolerance and acceptance, but the work of love reaches farther than walking side-by-side those around us. Loving requires us to see others.  Loving people doesn’t mean blindly engaging in relationships.  Love asks that we truly see the people standing in front of us or behind us or next to us.

Our culture doesn’t need more people to tolerate others—it needs more people who are willing to see others.

To see a person is to value that person.  When we see others, we not only accept them but we also affirm them.  It’s a move away from self-centered acts of love so we can free people to be who they were created to be.

The people I encounter every single day are people who are desperate to be seen.  They want to know what it’s like to be known.  It’s a shame-busting, courage-giving kind of love.

Seeing people offers them an invitation to shine—it’s making room for others’ gifts and talents and passions to push through concrete and grow in the light.

And we can only do this as those who are seen.  We have to agree to embrace the reality of our identity as those who belong to the God who loves.  The God who loves us is the God who sees us.   We’re not tolerated.  We’re not just accepted.  We’re loved as those fully known.  Our failings and flaws are no threat to this love.

Loving people doesn’t mean we look past the mistakes, the addictions, the bad decisions or annoying personalities.  It means we see people as more than that with which they struggle.  And when we do this, we invite others to do the same.  We invite people to look beyond their fears and sin and recognize their deep value.

When we love others, we don’t necessarily give them anything.  Instead, we draw out the light that’s already within—we fuel a flame that already burns.  Our love reminds people that they have great worth and that today can be different than yesterday.

This is something tolerance will never do.  Tolerance can’t impart bravery.

But seeing people can.

Hagar was Abraham’s mistress.  Sarah, Abraham’s wife, forced Hagar to sleep with her husband in an attempt to gain a child through Hagar.  When the child was born, Sarah abused Hagar and she ran away.

God found her by a well.  He spoke to her as one who knew her—he knew where she’d come from and why she was crying.

And she said to this God, “You are the God who sees.”

God is a seeing God.  He knows where we’ve come from and he knows why we’re crying.

And to love others means we’re willing to do the same.

 

The freedom of rejection

Somewhere around age 13 I solidified a growing belief that a happy life could not be achieved without the approval of everyone around me. I began to live out of an unspoken mantra: Never give people a reason not to like you. Don’t mess up. Don’t make mistakes in relationships. Be perfect and people will like you, and if people like you, life is going to be ok.

As a result of this deeply rooted belief, I poured my energy into being a good friend. Whenever I failed, whenever I wasn’t perfect, whenever I was caught in my own self-absorption or lack of compassion, I fell into paralyzing self-deprecation. How could I let this happen? I’d replay the scenario over and over again in my mind, thinking about how if only I’d made a better decision, I’d have removed the chance for someone to reject me.

To say I was insecure is an understatement.  But “insecure” is just a euphemism for “self-absorbed.” I thought the word was more spiritual and made it seem like I was healthily addressing my issues, when in reality, I was completely preoccupied with myself—my flaws and failures and missed opportunities for perfection.

It was devastating to learn that part of my thinking was right—people did reject me when I made mistakes. My failures and shortcomings did create chasms in relationships. When I wasn’t perfect, there were times people stopped liking me or took back their approval.

But part of my mantra is deeply wrong—having the approval of others doesn’t lead to a happy life. Or, better said, I don’t need people to like me in order to be fully alive.

Shame taught me to fear rejection or the negative reactions of other people. I’d avoid creating conflict at any cost to myself, my integrity or my values. I would lie, manipulate and put myself in dangerous situations just to please others.

But one day I endured a particularly awful friendship breakup, in which a benign mistake on my part created such deep misunderstanding that my friend refused to reconcile. And after a night of snotty, panicked crying, I woke up and realized to my shock that I was still alive. I was still breathing. I had survived rejection. Somehow, even with my biggest fear realized, I was still moving and loving and living.

The awful feeling of shame can come with rejection, and it begs me to focus on my failure and the approval I seek but didn’t achieve. But the truth is, as long as we’re breathing, we’re going to let people down. No matter how much I try, I am going to make mistakes. I can’t cover all my bases. I’m a flawed person and eventually, each person in my life has found out.

And while people did turn from me, hurt me and shame me, there were still people in the world who loved me. There were still people in the world who didn’t see me through the lens of my failures. People still relied on me or appreciated me or saw me and refused to walk away.

It sounds simple and obvious to say that I can live without the approval of others, but there are moments and days where I still fight to stay in this reality. The past drive to perfectionism calls to me and offers comfort and familiarity and an irrational sense of control.

People will reject me. No matter how much I don’t want them to, no matter how much I try to avoid it, no matter how much effort I invest in relationship after relationship after relationship.

And there is freedom in this continual experience. I don’t have to feed a bear that wants to eat me. I don’t have to try to placate a monster who chases me with the agenda of destruction.  I don’t have to waste my effort running after something impossible and unattainable.

The question is not will you let people down—the question is how will you respond when you inevitably do. It’s not about having tough skin or toes that aren’t easily stepped on.   It’s about the spiritual discipline of moving from self-centeredness to a deeper reality—that my worth has nothing to do with what others think. That somehow who I am can’t be dictated by a world as broken and flawed as I am. It’s a spiritual discipline to raise my head above the shame and say yes to the continued opportunities to love. And this includes love toward myself.

Be kind to yourself. Be patient with your flaws. Be willing to forgive yourself as you forgive others. And keep breathing and living and loving even in the face of inevitable rejection.

apathy and grace

I’ve heard that the people who are more likely to succeed aren’t those with natural talent—they’re the ones who have to work hard and study and learn and develop talents and skills.  Those with natural skills tend to coast—they rely on what they already have instead of reaching for more.  Those for whom the task is a challenge know how to work—they know how to keep developing. They know how to grow.

I’ve stopped growing, in some ways.  I’ve chosen a nice plateau with God.  I’ve been hoping that last year’s devotion reading is enough for today and I’m hoping just because Lent is happening that it will gather me up into all-inclusive arms without me having to work.

I have natural belief.  I have natural faith.  And lately, that level of mediocrity has been enough for me.

I want grace to wheel me around as if I’ve forgotten how to walk.

Dallas Willard said it best: “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”

It’s a truism I’ve recently forgotten to remember.

There are times when I’ve needed to be carried, when I’m too weak to hang on to God so God hangs on to me.

But this time in my life is different.

My current struggle is equal to the villainous legalism, yet different.  It’s apathy.

It’s not about how hard I work to earn spiritual favor, it’s about how little I care to live in grace.  Either way, legalism and apathy are the same—a disregard for grace.   A blatant slammed door in the face of deep love—a love which must be accepted, must be taken, must be acknowledged in order to be lived.

I think one day, after a lot of personal struggle and situational disasters, I felt like discipleship didn’t fit me.  It was an uncomfortable high school band uniform I couldn’t wriggle out of.  My life was tanking, I watched it happen instead of jumping in to fight.  And I finally wriggled out of the uniform—free from acknowledging and taking and living in the grace.  I disconnected from what I needed in order to live.

I became disenchanted and disengaged.   I read words I wasn’t sure I believed.  I cut a lot loose during the dark times, and my communion with God sank with the rest.

I kept thinking about whether or not I want my life to go this way, this sterile disregard for a living union with God.  The question lit up in neon when I had kids.  What would they see mommy do?  Is God cultural?  Is belief in God inherited and dead?  Or is there something about it we are meant to live?  Could this relationship with God be the crux of what it is to be alive?

I want life.  So badly.  Real life—the kind that pulsates with purpose and vision and intimacy with God.

It’s daily before me.  Will I move toward it, or will I stand in the same place and stare at the potential?

I think a wasted life isn’t one that digresses—a wasted life is one that stays in the same place—a life that never goes anywhere, good or bad.  A wasted life is one that hunkers down and waits for the end to come.

And I want more.  I’d rather engage in a living union than lifelessly assenting to a system of beliefs.

Theologically, I’m not as certain as I used to be about so many things.  But I am certain that tomorrow can be different from today.  I’m convinced that the potential depth of our connection to God has no limit.  Next year, I don’t have to sit in the same place with the same issues and the same disbelief where I wallow today.  I can say yes to peace and liberation.

Grace always extends a hand.  And for my own life’s sake, I’ve got to get better at taking it.

pain, pain, go away

I hate pain and I’ll do anything to avoid it.

Moby was a little mutt puppy that showed up on our front porch when he was six weeks old.  He was the cutest thing I’d ever seen, but even his unimaginably soft fur didn’t turn me into a dog person.  As an adult, I’d never wanted a dog.  It wasn’t the amount of work they’d require or what to do with a pet when we left town—it was the risk involved.  I didn’t want to have a pet because animals die and I didn’t want to be sad one day when the unavoidable became reality.

One of the worst but truest things I’ve learned in my time on earth is that pain is.

Pain exists and it doesn’t know there are people it’s not allowed to affect.  It doesn’t regard demographics or financial brackets.  Pain slides through the cracks of even the most well-constructed fortresses we can build.

But pain’s reality doesn’t make me hate it any less.  I want to shut my eyes, plug my ears and emotionally disconnect whenever possible.

At Starbucks this morning, my friend and I had a conversation about pain.  What do you do with it?  How do you fight it?  What’s the best solution? Grow callouses so you don’t feel it?  Escape it with self-destructive habits?  Wallow in hopelessness and defeat?  Or try desperately to fix what might inevitably be unfixable?

I casually mentioned to my Starbucks friend how I’m afraid to watch the movie “Blackfish” because of my deep emotional connection to orcas.  I’m afraid I’ll feel too sad, too angry and cry too much.  My friend responded that she won’t watch it, either.  And she won’t watch “Schindler’s List.”  And she won’t watch anything that actually happened or reflects a difficult truism or stabs a happy ending right in the chest.

I feel the same way.  I’d rather run away from pain than look it in the face.  I’d rather not watch “Saving Private Ryan” or read the newspaper or listen to NPR when the stories don’t turn out too well.

Ironically, we live in a culture full to the brim with pain, yet we’ve spent our life’s resources trying to avoid it.  I know I have.  I’ll do anything to protect myself from an inevitable onslaught of difficulty.

We’re afraid.  We’re afraid of what pain looks like.  We’re afraid of how much it can hurt and how much it can cost us to lose what we love or what we think we need.  We’re afraid of a reality that includes challenges and failure.  But, pain will always find us, even if it corners us where we least expect it.

The question is not whether or not we’ll experience pain but what to do when it comes.  We all have shelter we take, places to which we run, ways we escape, or walls we hide behind.

The creek in Boulder, Colorado runs through the whole town.  It runs alongside parks and buildings and under bridges and through a college campus.  And under the bridges, there are signs that read, “In case of flood, do not take shelter here.”

You can’t always escape the rain.

I’m afraid I’ve developed a habit of taking shelter from pain in the silliest of places.  I want to hide or run or wait for things to change.

I disconnect from others.  I move into denial.  I turn toward unhealthy behaviors.

But it will rain.  It will flood.  Where will we go?

My friend argues that we have to fix it—stop the rain, close the skies, make some slight atmospheric changes.

But what if, even for a moment, we stop avoiding pain?  What if we learn to sit in it and actually feel the frightening raw emotion?  What if we stayed for a second and faced what we’re most afraid of?

This doesn’t mean we wallow in hopelessness—but maybe it means we stop our attempts to outrun our own emotional response.

I’m not sure I can make real life changes or significant forward movement unless I’m willing to sit in my pain.  I’m not sure I can fully engage this world unless I’m ok watching an upsetting documentary or reading a heart-wrenching article.  I’m learning that running from pain means running from maturity because I’m running from the chance to love, to connect, and to contribute.

It may, in fact, be irresponsible not to face our emotional responses.

How can we make changes if we never have a visceral response to anything?  Can we really say we’re alive if nothing cuts us or wounds us or makes us cry?

Real change in ourselves and this world comes from a willingness to face pain.  Surface, flimsy changes may come through attempts to avoid pain, but walls are destroyed by hands that have been wounded.

I’m convinced we’ll learn transformation as people who first sit in pain.  Maybe we should stop shutting our eyes to loss and betrayal.  Maybe it’s time we learn to cry—the ugly, snotty cry that pours out our insides.

And then, we can see and make changes.  Then we move forward.  As people who don’t take false shelter, but as people who aren’t so afraid of rain.