No Barriers

I have not been a very faithful blogger. There are several reasons for that. A big one is a relatively new project that has taken quite a bit of my time.

Last November, I met for the first time with a small group of lovely people who comprise the new No Barriers special needs ministry team for the church we attend. It’s something that’s been percolating for a long time, at least since spring of 2016, when I attended a regional conference on inclusion in faith communities.

This is not new territory for me. My dad is blind as the result of a bicycle accident. My parents got involved in church disabilities ministry when I was still pretty young, and I spent a lot of time traveling with them as they conducted awareness and accessibility seminars at Seventh-day Adventist churches all over Florida and, eventually, all over the South. It wasn’t always the most thrilling way for a pre-teen and teenager to spend the weekend, and I’ll be honest: I didn’t envision myself taking on that mantel as an adult.

But, as so often happens, life took some turns, and here I am. I believe churches should be a place where people of all abilities find inclusion, belonging and purpose. I saw needs around me, and after I attended that conference last year, a fire was lit. After talking to our senior pastor, I appointed myself the special needs ministry coordinator for our church and set about recruiting some help. I found some fantastic resources, including the Joni and Friends ministry Irresistible Church.

Our No Barriers team spent some time in the beginning talking to members and families of members with special needs. How were we doing? What was working? What could we do better? We’ve made some small changes as a result, like creating a larger diaper change area for a family with an older child who wasn’t able to fit on the infant-sized changing table. We’ve been working on general accessibility by obtaining a stair lift (donated by a business that was installing an elevator to replace their lift), improving signage for accessibility features, adjusting the pressure required to open doors…

We’ve been at this now for seven months, and tomorrow is a big day for our baby ministry. (I should explain that we attend church on Saturdays, just in case you’re confused by the day.) It’s the first week for our buddy program for a lovely 13-year-old girl with Down syndrome. The program is pairing this young member of our church with two peer volunteers who have gone through some simple training. They will alternate weeks to provide one-to-one support, helping their friend to participate with her class, freeing her mom to attend an adult class, and bringing down some of the barriers that separated this family’s experience from that of other members.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks and months on program policies, training materials, log sheets and information binders, but this week is happening because other members of our church – many of them members with no direct connection to special needs – have shown they care and are willing to step up. Church is not a place for perfect people. We’re all pretty screwed up and dealing with our own personal failings. But when church is working like it should, it’s a place where we come together and support each other as we try to know God better and let Him work in our lives. Church as it should be is a place where we allow our needs to be known and watch as God moves us to take care of each other. Church as it should be is a compelling place to serve and belong.

I don’t know exactly how tomorrow will go. We’re new at this, and I have a feeling there will be hiccups along the way. I honestly have no idea what I’m doing most of the time. I don’t know where all this is headed long-term. But I sense God at work, and I am so grateful that when I have presented the needs I see, people around me have responded with genuine enthusiasm and caring. It gives me hope in a world where too often, the name Christian is wielded as a weapon to bludgeon and divide.


Longing, remembered and fulfilled

Last night, I tucked a five-year-old boy into bed for the last time. This morning, I woke a six-year-old up with the birthday song and made him scrambled eggs for breakfast. After he left with daddy to meet the bus, I sat down at this computer and pulled up the journal I kept for more than three years leading up to Corin’s birth. The first entry was dated December 28, 2006. I addressed the journal to our as-yet non-existent child.

It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at that journal and remembered what those years of infertility were like. I cried as I read back over the entries and remembered months upon months of delayed hopes and crushing disappointments, the endless prayers of longing and fear and hope and trust.

On July 28, 2009, I wrote:

I find myself feeling almost superstitious as I type this entry, as if by writing out the same hopes and dreams I’ve expressed so many times before, I might chase away the possibility of a different outcome. I’ll admit, I am scared. I have moments where I can hardly breathe for fear of the crushing disappointment that may wait just around the corner. But as I said, I have hope, too. And in those moments when emotions swell, I reach for my only true recourse: prayer. I know God continues to be with us, and I am determined to trust Him with my life – and yours, little one. I plead with Him to let me now be carrying our firstborn child, but I pray that above all, His will is done. What is faith if I only trust Him in smooth waters, when I can see what lies ahead? Faith becomes real in these uncertain moments.

The next morning, I went in to our local clinic for a blood beta pregnancy test. After so many times staring at a tiny window and wishing for a line that never appeared, I was too afraid to test at home before the official blood results. On July 31st, the nurse at the clinic in Maryland (where we had gone for the actual IVF cycle) called with the news that the test was positive. Jon and I jumped with joy and trembled and cried, and then we stopped to say a prayer of gratitude and to ask for God’s protection for the tiny life that was just beginning to form.

Today, I still pray over that life, no longer so tiny. I remember the little butt that was wedged for weeks under my ribs and the tiny hands and feet that rocked my belly, and I marvel to see those parts walking around, pieces of this marvelous, challenging, growing boy. That tiny life we longed and prayed for is my six-year-old son, who throws his arms around me and says he loves me several times a day. I look at him today, and I remember the longing of those years. I remember the baptism by fire of his newborn days, and I remember so many moments of joy and frustration and exhaustion and laughter since. There is no honor in my life – no accomplishment or goal met – that will ever equal the fulfillment of being this boy’s mother. He is my firstborn, the child of those many years of longing, God’s answer to innumerable prayers.

Happy birthday, Corin.

Newborn Corin

The gods we have made

A good friend posted this link earlier today: How American Parenting is Killing the American Marriage. It is well worth the short read. It got me thinking about some broader issues.

Our society is struggling with a very serious expectations problem. It’s not just parenting; it’s life. For your first clue, look no further than the continually expanding expense and ritual associated with weddings and baby showers. From the get-go, we set up the expectation that marriage and parenthood (and on a lesser scale, other life accomplishments and milestones) will bring us bone-deep happiness and fulfillment. We get the message they are SUPPOSED to. So what does it mean when marriage and career and parenthood turn out to be really hard?

As a commenter on my friend’s Facebook post mentioned, it’s very similar to the problem of body image. We are comparing our lives to an unattainable, airbrushed ideal that doesn’t exist. I think previous generations may have understood better than we do: life isn’t about the perfect marriage and perfect family (or perfect house, etc.). It’s about making wise choices, working really hard, and living according to a guiding set of principles and values.

I find my purpose in serving a God who loves me passionately. He asks me to pass that love on to others. When I put my focus there, it keeps the rest of life in its proper perspective. My world isn’t shaken when the kids are driving me nuts and my husband and I argue. Life is hard! We can save each other a lot of heartache by being honest: marriage and family are so important, and yes, there is fulfillment there. But they will not supply your need for purpose and meaning. They shouldn’t have to, because the authors of the parenting article are right: That’s when we elevate these institutions to the status of religion.

We’ve gotten a warped picture of happiness. We need to unplug, stop comparing, and stop straining for an unattainable ideal. Happiness is a choice we make because we believe in things bigger than ourselves, because we find purpose in serving larger ideals, and because we understand what really matters. I think deep down, we all know this, but we get lost in the beautiful illusions of perfection. It’s okay to have lovely family photos and to honor the joy we take in loved ones (and careers and hobbies…). But I’m pleading with you, friends: Don’t look to these things for purpose. It will leave you frustrated, empty and depressed. There is a better way to live. There is ultimate contentment in knowing a deeper purpose and keeping everything else in its place.

Attitude adjustments

I’ve been (very!) slowly reading through the Bible over the last couple years, and right now I’m in the book of Acts. This morning’s chapter was the story of Peter’s vision of unclean animals and God’s call for him to take the Gospel to someone he never would have associated with on his own. It got me thinking about God’s power to change our attitudes.

It happens often for me, in different ways. I might be sitting in church when words from a sermon suddenly strike home. Sometimes a casual comment or well-timed advice from a friend will provide a shift in perspective. Maybe it’s just that still voice in a quiet moment, helping me see myself and the world more clearly.

My process in our embryo adoption experience has been a big lesson in God’s ability to change my perspective. I started out flatly rejecting the idea, mostly because it didn’t fit the plans I was busy making. It’s pretty amazing to look back on how God moved me from rejection to embracing embryo adoption. He was clearly at work.

But it’s been a longer process than that. It would be misleading to say we made our decision and never looked back. Our counselor told us several times that you can be excited about new opportunities while at the same time grieving a loss, and she warned us that grief is not a linear process. Sometimes little things can trigger feelings you thought were over. She was right, as she always seems to be. The thing about infertility is that every option involves a loss of some kind. We did grieve even as we moved forward with embryo adoption. More than once, I felt a stab as I saw myself or Jon (mostly Jon!) or maybe even a grandparent or uncle in my son and mourned the loss of that experience with our next child. We wondered how well other people would relate to what we were doing and whether our child would face extra challenges finding her place in the world. We grieved the loss of “normal,” whatever that is. In fact, there was a time somewhere in the middle of the process – I think around the time we were reviewing donors – when we both were questioning enough to need to walk through the entire decision again. We started at the beginning and talked about all our doubts and questions. What if finances weren’t a factor? Would things be different if we waited another year or two? After going over the whole process again, we came out in exactly the same place. This was the right choice. It was where God was leading. After that, things were easier.

I suppose, keeping in mind the counselor’s warning, there will probably still be some difficult moments ahead. But God has brought me to a place of peace and joy. Knowing He has led us here gives me such confidence in the future. In the way only He can, He changed my attitude to match His plan. Throughout this pregnancy, I have felt such a bond growing with Baby Girl, and the fears have faded away. I love the incredible way she came to us, and I love that someday, I will be able to tell her how she was chosen for us, before those tiny cells even began dividing.

A beautiful surrender

I am a planner. I remember writing out a timeline, sometime around three years of marriage, of exactly when I wanted to have our first, second and third kids (at ages 28, 31 and 33, for the record). Yeah, I know. I realized even at the time that this was pretty silly. Somehow, though, it made me feel as if we were progressing toward the goal of parenthood.

You can imagine, then, that having parenthood delayed by years of infertility required an adjustment. I had some lessons to learn.

I want to be clear: I don’t believe difficulty originates with God. Heartache and loss come because we live in a world of sin, so far from God’s ideal. We live, for the moment, in the enemy’s territory. But I believe God DOES use the troubles that come to help us grow and to eventually weave the circumstances of our lives into something beautiful.

I kept a personal journal, in the form of letters to our unborn child, during those years. I remember writing an entry at one point that said something like, “I want a child more than I’ve ever wanted anything.” The next morning, I read in my Bible the story of Elijah fleeing for his life after Mt. Carmel. His dramatic self-pity at that low point in his life suddenly seemed uncomfortably familiar. I read how God lovingly cared for Elijah’s physical needs. And then He provided a reality check, for Elijah and for me. There were things more important than Elijah’s comfort or even his safety. God had bigger plans, and Elijah had an important role to play. It dawned on me that having a child was not the thing I wanted most. I most wanted my life to matter in the way it can only when God is in control. If God chose to give us the child we prayed for later than I’d hoped – or never, I forced myself to face – I still trusted Him. I knew, but needed to be reminded, that what He could do with my life was better than anything I could plan for myself.

That reality check came back to me over and over again in the many months still ahead before Corin became a part of our lives. And it came back to me yet again as we faced difficult decisions about our next child. What is faith if we stop trusting the moment we can no longer see the future clearly? God was teaching me to let go of my need for control and to trust completely in His love for me and His ability to make something of my life. I wish I could say that I know now exactly what His greater purpose was – or is – for me. That part still isn’t entirely clear. But I do know that in His time and in His way, He is giving me the desires of my heart. And along the rather winding trail, He is teaching me to see beauty I might have missed had I rushed by on the direct route.