Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Kids Are Kids...Not Little Adults

I have spent the majority of my life around children.  I am the eldest of four siblings, my Mama was a teacher when I was growing up, and our family was always at church.  I have never had a season in my life without children being a big part of it.  Our home was always open and full of kids.  I had wonderful examples in my life of people who loved children.  My Mama made sure every child she worked with felt value.  A friend's mom, Jennifer Bradley, fought to make sure every child knew they were special.  Another friend's mom, Barbara Hague, had a home always open to anyone in the community and continually filled bellies with good food.  My Aunt Rose, loved loving children by baking a favorite dessert or listening to stories from any child who felt the need to chatter away (I struggled with that from time to time).  My Grandmama loved all the grandchildren in her life a little more quietly, but she showered her grandkids with a favorite dinner dish, teaching a skill, or making beautiful dresses.  My upbringing was filled with people who just loved being around children and who showed me the power an adult has in the life of a child.

I know God placed a call on my heart to work with children when I was in elementary school.  I can remember reading books from my school library about the missionaries, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong (behold, my Southern Baptist upbringing).  I remember the stories of these ladies giving their all to love others, especially children by means of giving clothing or food or shelter.  I distinctly remember being in our Friday morning chapel.  After the message, I remember feeling in my heart, "Amber-you are going to be a missionary to children."  Now, as of yet, my mission field has been local, and I'm ok with that.  But, I am looking forward to the day when God makes a way for me to be a missionary to children in other parts of the world.  As I grew older, that love to work with and serve children has never faltered.  When I was a senior in high school, my five year plan included graduating from college then becoming a Mama.  I always had the desire for a big family like the one I grew up in.  I wanted four children, and because I do believe in life at conception, I was blessed enough to "have" four children even though I only have two who made it to birth.  When I was in high school, I volunteered at West Buncombe Elementary School every chance I could get.  When I went to Mars Hill University, I tutored 4th graders twice a week, came home on Sundays to lead the children's choir, and spent lots of time with my siblings and their friends.  As I continued my education, I studies sociology with an emphasis on children.  I wanted to understand how relationships effected children.  I kept going in school to receive a Master's of Education Degree with a focus on Family and Community Services.  I had the heart for children, and I wanted to make sure I had the head knowledge I would need to best serve whatever kiddos came into my life.

I tell you all of this to give you my background.  Many of my opinions on children are just that, opinions.  Some of what I talk about comes from the materials I studied while gaining my education.  But, most of what I know about children, I learned from children.  As a parent, I am sometimes told that I am hard on my children.  I probably am.  I have high expectations for Cecely and Titus.  I don't have unrealistic expectations; I challenge them, but I also have learned what they are capable of at different stages of development and learning.  I absolutely know that there have been times when I have been "hard" on them.  For the most part, I think my kiddos and I have a good balance going.  

Through the changes in our world over the past two and a half years, I have watched my children become different people.  I was told more than once that kids are resilient and they'll bounce back from what's happened.  I think, in theory, those people were right...and I have no doubt they were well-intended and trying to be an encouragement when they told me that.  However, I have learned that children, at least my children, are not the kind who recover easily.  In the span of two and half years, my children have gone from being with their father every day to almost a year with minimal contact to spending half of their time with him.  They have gone from having me with them every day, to having me with them half of the time.  They have moved a total of five times and they are getting ready to move again with me.  They have gone from parents who were always together to seeing their parents with different grown-ups.  They have transitioned from being homeschool students to public school students.  They have dealt with the change of a Mom who was available at home all of the time, to a Mom who works full-time.  They have gone from a life of consistency and knowing what's expected to learning how to function in two different households that are run completely different.  They have gone from being a family with two children, to one house with five children, and another house with three.  They have seen Mama be married to Daddy, to Mama being all alone, to Mama dating, to Mama getting ready to be married again.  I am not saying that any of this was/is "bad", but I am saying it has been an unbearable load for children to carry.  Yes, my children have an awesome church family, close-knit friends who have been incredible, and a great support system.  Even so, that is so much for the brain of a child to process.

My frustration with adults is when they expect children to act like adults.  They are kids.  Let them be kids!  I'm all about rules, structure, plans, etc. (ask my kids if you doubt that at all), but this world is so crazy and life happens so fast, that children are being expected to behave like adults before they are even teenagers.  Cecely struggles at my house because I don't "let her" do as much as she would like...she has learned to take care of Titus when they are not with me, and that is great.  I am so proud of her.  But, I remind her, almost weekly, that I am his Mom, and she is his sister.  Right now, her biggest job is to be an 11 year-old.  She has appropriate chores and responsibilities when she is with me, but she also has the freedom to be a child when she is with me.  It kills me that I have to tell her that it's ok to play.  Cecely battles anger because of all she has seen and dealt with.  And, as she gets older, she has begun to develop a bit of an attitude...some of that is age, some of it is genetics (I'm not pointing fingers--Aunt Andrea), and some of it is because she is sick and tired of all that has been going on.  There was a time early in the separation process where Cecely expressed suicidal thoughts.   Again, for her level of processing, it made sense to her that it would be better to be dead than to feel all the hurt she was feeling.  She could not process all of the grief and loss like an adult, but it often seemed that people expected her to.  There is not a time table on healing or processing...especially for children!

Titus has also changed so much.  Before all of the separation, Titus was a fearless little man.  He was in everything and scared of nothing.  He was a cuddler, but when he was done being lovey, he was ready to explore and play.  He used to talk all of the time.  Now, Titus internalizes a lot of what he is thinking and feeling.  He lets his thoughts build up until he explodes.  It is completely heartbreaking to witness.  Even now and even when he's with his closest family and friends, he wants me right beside him.  He has stopped taking risks, although I coax him as often as I can to leap out and test some things.  Titus seems to be under a cloud of fear most of the time.  When he is with me, the cloud shifts, and I get glimmers of the little boy he used to be.  By the time he levels out, it's back to his other house.  When he comes back, the cycle starts all over.  He has been told to grow up, deal with things, and stop being so clingy to me.  I have also been told to stop letting him come to me and cry when he is scared or upset at night.  Here's the deal...uh, no!  As long as my child is upset, I am going to be available the best way I can to comfort him.  Just because the adults have adjusted to the changes does not mean a little boy has.  Again, there is no timeframe on healing.  

Both of my children work very hard to overcome the battles that life has given them.  They have a strong foundation of faith built from time in God's Word and time in our wonderful church.  They know that they have a circle of people who are safe to talk to when they don't feel that they can talk to me or their dad.  They are having to learn about adult-issues, about consequences to choices, about consequences to decisions that weren't theirs to make.  They are having to learn to stand up for themselves and remove themselves from inappropriate situations when I'm not around to fight for them or to protect them.  I am so grateful that they have each other.  I am so thankful for the family and friends who love them so wonderfully.  I completely hate the turmoil they have experienced.  I hate the changes that have trampled them.  I hate that I have not been able to keep them safe and sound and let them learn the lessons of life at the appropriate time and not at an accelerated speed.

My advice to you, if you know children in your life who are struggling, if they have behavior problems, if they are closed down, whatever it may be, please be patient.  We often don't know the hurt that children are holding onto.  Working in ministry and in the school system, I have learned that picture perfect families do not exist and that every family has some kind of battle.  I ask that if you deal with children that you be extra cautious and extra gracious.  Pray for the children in your life.  If you are able, give them opportunities to be children.  Do not expect them to process or act like you would in a situation...they shouldn't have to...they aren't adults!

My kiddos and me Oct. 2012
Children are a great gift and a wonderful treasure.  The Bible is full of verses reminding us of that!  So, if you are struggling on how to deal with a child, if you know a child who is hurting, or if you just need a word from the Lord, read these:

Psalm 127:3--Children are a heritage/gift/blessing from the Lord...

Psalm 8:2--Out of the mouths of babes and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.

Matthew 18:2-6--"Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

Matthew 18:10--See that you do not despise one of these little ones.  For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.

Mark 10:13-16--And they were brining children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God"...and He took them in His arms and blessed them.

Pray for the children in your world.  Pray for the grown-ups of the children in your world.  Shower them with affirmation and encouragement.  You don't have to be able to fix the situation, just listen.  Love them with the love Jesus has given you.  Remember every child has a story, and most have a heartache.  Be the light the best way you know how!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

For Those Inquiring Minds...

Our story begins before we even talked to one another.  When the Biltmore Baptist Church East Campus (now Swannanoa Campus) launched in January of 2012, Brian and I were both there.  I was in attendance with my then-husband, Cecely and Titus.  Brian and his daughter Hannah were in attendance as well.  Brian helped with the opening of the campus, and Hannah attended the AMP service.  She and Cecely met in AMP and became fast friends.  After East Campus “settled” Brian and Hannah returned to the Arden Campus. 

Fast-forward a year to January 11, 2013.  That is the day my former husband asked for a divorce.  I was distraught, heartbroken, confused and hurt.  Brian and I had become Facebook friends through our common thread of Biltmore Baptist.  Brian and my husband were actually in a men’s group together.  Still, I had never met or spoken with Brian.  A couple of days after Brian’s birthday in 2013, I was sitting alone at the dining room table.  I was on my computer and I had 2 windows open: Facebook and Southwest Airlines.  I was so hurt.  I was convinced God had forgotten me.  I was certain I wouldn’t survive.  I had already talked to my Mama about taking care of my kids for me for a week, and I was ready to run away.  I had put in all of my information on the Southwest website.  All that was left to do was to hit submit.  I am not exaggerating when I say that my finger was poised on the keyboard when a post from Brian appeared on my Facebook feed.  Drove around a lot last night thinking about everything leading up to now in my life - some things have been great, some things have been horrible. But at the end of the day, all I can focus on is how many great things that God has blessed me with, and the things that were bad, are in my past for a reason, so I think I'll just leave them there - where they belong.”  I knew from previous posts from Brian that he was divorced and that he had 2 beautiful daughters.  I had read posts about how hard it was on him when he was away from them.  But, until that moment, I had not processed what that must have felt like.  I read and re-read his post.  I determined that I had to meet him.  I had to know how he wasn’t angry and bitter and how he was still able to give God the glory in the midst of a life interrupted.  I have told Brian more than once that his post is what saved me from hopping on a plane to horrible choices.  Brian says he has to give God the credit, and I agree.  God sees what we don’t, and He knew that I would see that post and it would tug on my heart.

If you know me at all you know that I am friendly, but I am not forward.  I am also a stringent follower of the rules.  I didn’t know what was happening in my world, and I was hoping and praying for restoration.  I did know that I had to meet Brian and find out the secret of his joy.  I contacted Brian via Facebook which was completely out of character for me.  At this time, Brian knew nothing of what was going on in my world, and all he knew was the wife of a guy he was in a small group with was contacting him.  At this point, I was working for BBC East (Swannanoa) in a 10-hour position.  In an act to protect me and give me a break, my supervisors had me spend a month at the Arden campus shadowing the kids ministry.  I had never attended the Arden campus save for special events.  Brian asked me to meet him at the coffee counter on the Sunday after I contacted him.  He is a wise man, and I saw that from the get-go.  He was protecting his reputation and mine. When I introduced myself to him, I asked, “how do you do it?  How are you not angry and bitter and ready to explode?”.  I told him what had happened, and he was “floored”.  He told me that what had gotten him through was realizing that God was bigger than his problems.  Consequently, he sent me a link to his video interview where he had shared a portion of his story for a sermon series.  As he spoke in that interview, I felt such relief.  Brian had been exactly where I was standing, and he had made it!  Recently, I told Brian I used to listen to his interview every night when I was trying to go to sleep.  I would chant the last words he spoke over and over in my mind and heart: “God never fails.  He never gives up on you.  God fights for you.”  (Brian's Video Testimony)

After meeting Brian, he encouraged me to participate in an online Bible study that he was facilitating.  On Tuesday nights, my former husband would come to our old house and play with the kids while I sat holed up in my bedroom.  It was torture to hear my family laughing without me.  I would put in my earbuds and engage in the Bible study.  What a help that was!  The study was on the book of Philippians, and it is where Brian and I discovered we both shared that book as our favorite, and that our life verses were found in Philippians…Brian’s is 4:13, mine is 4:19.  During this time, Brian would pray for my husband, my children and me.  I began praying for his girls and him.  We didn’t know what was going on with my situation, but Brian was literally joining me in prayer for our family to be restored.

In March of 2013, it was made evident that my husband would not be returning home, that my children and I were going to be evicted from our house, and that there were other issues which triggered his want for a divorce.  Once I knew this, I knew that biblically I was allowed to pursue the legal actions for a divorce.  I started the process with the assistance of my parents.  I was able to find an apartment for my children and me (which is another awesome story of God’s provision) and my job grew into a 40-hour position with benefits.  God is good.  He sees what I can’t!  My kids and I began counseling and joined the Divorce Care program.  During this time, Brian and I would exchange messages on occasion.  We would share You Tube videos to make each other laugh.  We would send songs of encouragement on the down days.  We were friends, but on a completely platonic level.

In June of 2013, my kiddos and I headed to VBS at the Arden campus.  On the first day, Cecely, Titus, and I were standing at the registration table.  Cecely turned around and shrieked.  And like a scene out of a movie, Cecely and Hannah were going towards one another.  The two of them hugged then started talking a million miles a minute.  That’s the day I met Hannah.  Each day that week, the girls found one another to talk.  Then, Cecely asked if Hannah could come over and swim at our apartment.  For that summer, Hannah came over often to swim, watch movies, and sleep over.  It was always a noisy, but good time.  While the girls would hang out, Brian and I would exchange conversations about logistics for swim dates and sleepovers.  We would still message each other words of humor or encouragement.  Again, I would say that we were friends, but that neither of us were processing anything more than that.  I honestly believed that I would be single forever and that I was too damaged to be redeemed.  I’m not sure what Brian was thinking, but feel free to ask him!

Brian and I ended up in a couple of connect groups together, and through those encounters, we learned a lot about each other.  This opened us up for conversations on deeper levels about our pasts, our spirituality, our beliefs, our goals, and our dreams.  At this point, I began thinking, “wow, this man is incredible!”.  We talked a lot, we laughed nonstop.  We spent time with each other when our kids were hanging out, at church functions, or at connect group. 

Fast forward to Brian’s Kenya trip.  That is when everything changed for me.  I remember following his posts on Facebook and texting his parents to make sure he was safe.  I remember getting so mad at myself for caring that he was traveling.  I went to visit friends out of town while he was away.  My kiddos were in summer camp during the same time, so I was all alone.  I stayed in one of the days I was gone, and I my phone rang.  I have a rule for my phone…if I don’t know the number, I don’t answer it.  For some reason, on this day, I answered that unknown number.  And, to my delight, Brian was on the other end of the line.  I couldn’t believe it!  We talked about baboons and volcanoes.  As soon as we hung up, I sat down on the floor and sobbed.  My mind was reeling… "he called me from Kenya!  What does that mean?  What do I do?  Why am I crying?  Why am I so happy?  How am I so happy?..”  My brain is a dangerous place on a calm day.  This event almost landed me in a hospital!  Brian called me every day that he could while he was in Kenya.  When he came home, my kids, Hannah, his Mom and I had a party for him.  I remember how excited yet peaceful I felt when I saw him once he came back.  I felt safe knowing he was near.

Because I am a by-the-book person, and because Brian is a big believer in doing things the right way, we did not formally begin to date until my divorce was final.  We did continue to spend time together with our kiddos and with friends and family, but we did not start our official dating until we felt comfortable with the legal process being behind us.  Since then, I would say that life has been pretty great.  There are things that are incredibly hard to deal with.  Having a very similar past means we share very similar hurts, which is a blessing and a curse.  I feel that we have mastered the art of family dating.  We love being with our children and providing them with memory-making opportunities.  We enjoy time with each other’s family.  It is extremely difficult to pursue a person and to build a foundation for a relationship when there are so many challenges present.  But, I have realized the 2 years of conversations we have had, prayers we have shared, and goals we have pursued have laid a solid foundation. 

When Brian and I began dating, we would talk about marriage.  Neither of us wanted to waste time on casual dating.  We talked about every topic under the sun.  About six months ago, we started to have more frequent and deeper conversations about being married and joining our families together.  Brian suggested that we attend counseling together.  Oh my goodness...if you could have seen and heard what went on in those sessions.  All I can say is, God bless our amazing counselor!!!  We began to plan the logistics of a wedding.  It wasn't a romantic process, but we are practical people.  Romance doesn't rate high with either of us.  We knew we would want a small, family wedding.  We knew we would have to plan around several schedules from work, children, exes, family members, etc.  To my surprise, a wonderful family friend was attending an event Brian and I were at, and she mentioned us having a wedding at her home...this was funny because Brian and I had only begun talking about a wedding and hadn't shared that information with anyone else.  Isn't God's sense of humor excellent?  Brian and I went to her home, sat down and chatted, and set a date!  Again, not romantic, but for the sake of logistics.  We let our families know the date so travel plans could start being made.  A few of my close friends were let in on the secret to start helping me plan a wedding.  I had basically resolved that we would continue on this practical wedding planning path and there wouldn't really be any romance.

Brian, on the other hand, had a different plan.  He and I had talked about what we liked and wanted for our wedding.  I had told him that I had always wanted a Claddagh ring.  When I was in high school, I did some research on Ireland, and I fell in love with the folklore and landscape (one of my bucket list items is to go there).  As anyone who has met Brian ever knows, he loves the Irish, too, but the ones who are based in South Bend, Indiana.  I learned in our planning, that Brian is also pretty traditional, which did surprise me.  He kept mentioning that I probably really wanted a diamond whenever I would say I wanted an emerald.  Little did I know that he was in cahoots with a ring designer in California crafting my perfect ring.  Having the busy lives we have, it is rare for us to have a stretch of time together without work or kiddos...and we're fine with that.  I would look at our calendar and see that we just stay so busy.  Brian, however, had been working on a proposal plan behind my back.  Apparently there were some set-backs (again, ask Brian more about this) and his proposal plan kept moving later and later on the calendar.  

On Saturday, May 9th, Brian masterminded a plan to surprise me with hidden romantic skills and with a gorgeous ring.  I had been gone on a work retreat, and upon my return was diagnosed with a severe sinus infection which made me puny, loopy, and not very pretty.  I also had my kiddos that day, so I felt anything romantic was a pipe dream.  But, with the help of some incredible friends, Brian managed a fun distraction for my children and a little time away for us.  I am a planner, Brian is more spontaneous.  I cannot tell you the number of times he has said, "let's just go for a drive."  He does that so much, that I am accustomed to hop in the car and roll with it.  Those were the words he used on Saturday, and I had heard them before, so my suspicions were nonexistent.  Brian drove me up to Mt. Pisgah to an area he and I had visited when we first began dating.  It is a beautiful spot where you can't help but soak in the wonders of creation.  We talked and walked.  While we were roaming, we spotted a small trail we had not noticed before.  We followed it to some beautiful rock stairs that led to what felt like a secret garden.  While I was yammering on about who knows what, Brian grabbed my arms and turned me to face him.  A little background information that you need to know is that Brian's height and strength are two of my favorite qualities.  I always say to him, "I love how tall you are".  When he turned me towards him, I looked up at his face and he was smiling so big.  No, he did not get down on his knee, but I am glad he didn't.  I love looking up at him.  Brian said some wonderful things full of kindness and sweetness.  He spoke of his love for me and for my children.  He spoke of answered prayers and God's goodness.  With tears in both of our eyes, he asked me to marry him, and I said a resounding yes!

Now, we are counting down to a wedding and making plans of combining homes.  We know there are challenging days ahead, but we have no fear.  We feel confident that God brought us together, and we are very excited to see what God has planned for us.  We both have dreams of mission work.  We have goals to travel and see God’s creation.  We want to be the best parents that we can.  And, we share a heart for God and for others.  We have already had some fantastic adventures and wonderful experiences.  I am so grateful for second chances.  I am thankful to serve a God who redeems, restores, and blesses.