Teachers

My girls have lived through terrifying childhoods. I never cease to be shocked when I start listening-  untangling the mess of the past of yet another teenager who has, only by God’s grace, made her way into my home. I hear horror stories of abuse, betrayal, complete neglect… of children who lived years in circumstances that not one person should have to face even for one day ever.

And as I listen, I have heard a common story woven throughout. Somewhere along the way, most of my girls had a teacher – one teacher for one year, who stabbed a hole in the darkness of their lives to let light shine through. One teacher who cared, who stopped to listen, who stayed after class to talk. One teacher who looked past the defiant behavior and saw a world of abuse. One teacher who saw with compassionate eyes the bruised little soul and tried to make things better. One teacher who told her she could do it, who made her feel important, who believed her life had purpose. I have watched eyes soften as she tells of this one teacher, one ordinary lady or man, who gave her a reason to hope. And most of the stories end with this: “I wish so badly that I could find my teacher, to tell her thank you. I wish she could see me now.”

So I’m writing this for all my teacher friends, on behalf of all the difficult, hurting, defiant kids you’ve tried to reach.  She wants to tell you Thank You.

She wants you to know that you were the first person to ever SEE her. You showed her love for the first time. You understood her pain, even though she would never talk about it. You helped her catch up instead of humiliating her. You hugged her even though she smelled really bad. You didn’t punish her when she fell asleep in class day after day. You gave her boundaries and showed her tough love when you had to. But you never gave up on her.

Maybe you only had her in class for a few months or a year. Maybe she got pulled out of school and you never saw her again. Maybe you’ve wondered what ever happened to her, or if she’s ok. She wants you to know that she’s grateful. And she wishes you could see her now. She wishes you could know that she’s graduated. That she has dreams for her future. That she loves to help others. She wishes you could know that you made a difference. Your heart, your love and your compassion made all the difference in the world to her. Thank you.

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Wanted

I sat in a plastic chair today and observed her while she shared. No life in her words, no expression on her face. Nothing except a deep sadness in her eyes, a sadness I know so well.

She reminded me of so many of our girls before her; her words resonating with the hurt that speaks volumes of untold experience . I saw in her all of our kids who were abandoned and unnoticed and unloved – those who passed days alone in fear and spent nights dreaming that Momma would come home. Of hunger that growled deep and became normal because food stamps were traded for cocaine and nobody had time to nurture a child. And my heart ached for her.

She sat perfectly still, slumped, as slowly her story poured forth. She told with faltering words the course of her sixteen years on earth. She spoke of chaos and instability. How she stayed with different relatives and friends, moving around each month as one caregiver and then another went to jail. How she was left alone as the pull of the streets grew strong. She didn’t have to explain the hurt. The pain in her eyes yells her truth. Nobody has ever wanted her, not for a day of her life.

Until today. Today, the Kingdom of God met her broken heart. Today, I had the great privilege of speaking truth to her empty frame. She listened, unbelieving, as I told her that God has loved her all along. Her expression didn’t change when I told her that she will be home soon, and that He is giving her a new family. She didn’t believe me today, but one day she will.

Slowly, surely, love will conquer fear. One day, she’ll lay her baggage down at the foot of the cross and open her arms wide in freedom. One day, a light will shine where darkness once stood in her brown eyes because now, she is wanted.

Just Like Her

“Do you know that I’ve been in prison?”

Her eyes flicker downward with the question, just for a second.  Baring your heart before a stranger is never easy. But here she sits, at my kitchen table where I meet with all prospective new volunteers. Courageously bringing her past into the present, she knows that her honesty may be rewarded with rejection. Her quiet spirit embodies the grace of a familiar One though, and I love her already.

“Yeah, that’s ok.” I say, smiling. What she doesn’t know is that my heart is smiling too. She’s exactly who I’ve been praying for.

She proceeds to tell me her story. A difficult background. A series of really bad decisions. How she lost everyone and everything. Then how God found her, right there in her mess. Kind of like he finds me. Kind of like he finds all of us. And the rest is beautiful – a story of redemption. She tears up while she speaks of His goodness. I hold back tears too, thanking God already for sending her to us.

Because the truth of the matter is, I don’t just want her to volunteer here –  I NEED her to. I need her to bring her journey  – the story of how God scooped her up and made her lovely and whole and complete – to my kids. I need them to see that it can happen. I need them to know, not just to wish, but to really know that transformation is possible in Jesus. She is a living, breathing marker of hope for me and for our family.

And once she becomes a part of us, she’ll be the first to show up and the last to leave. She’ll always be ready to serve, because she knows the impact she can make. She won’t waste any time, because she knows how precious each moment is, especially to kids as vulnerable as ours.

And when one of my girls runs away, hits the streets and rejects our love, she’ll be the first to tell me not to give up. “She’ll get it one day,” she’ll whisper, hugging my broken heart. “Don’t be discouraged.” And I’ll listen to her because she knows. She really knows. She was that girl.

So when we finish our interview, I’ll go print out the results of her criminal background check. I’ll push down hard on the stapler to keep all the pages together. And I’ll tuck it away in the back of the filing cabinet, where it belongs.

And I’ll pray that one day, some of my babies will be just like her. That they’ll walk in grace and peace and humility. That Christ in them will be so evident, their lives will yell “Death is defeated!” to all who see. That they’ll be so changed by Jesus’ mercy that nothing – no obstacle, no background check, no fear of rejection will stop his love from pouring in and up and out of them, running through their fingers to touch everyone they meet.  

Broken Chains

I wish I could say I never stopped believing that my friend would come back to Jesus. That he’d stop living in destruction. That he’d have the courage to change. But I can’t.

Years had passed. He was in and out of jail. He went to prison and back, and back to the same old things. Drinking and using meth. A lifestyle of addiction, and everything ugly that comes along with it. I stopped hoping because honestly, hope hurts sometimes.

So my heart slowed a little bit when I heard that old familiar voice on the phone, late at night. The tears he was choking back – telling me that he wasn’t ok. And that he was done. And that he wanted me to come for him.

So we went, my dad and I – driving for hours through an ice storm. By God’s mercy we plowed around wrecks and traffic jams and slid right up next to the place that had held our brother hostage for most of his life.  A dirty, cold trailer with no running water. A place of misery and dope and stolen innocence. A home where darkness rules and shame runs deep in the veins of its victims. And against that backdrop of despair stood a figure of courage- a solitary emblem of hope. Wrapped up in an old brown jacket, he was waiting at the end of the driveway, decision made. Ready for change. Gripping a Walmart bag full of clothes and a pair of shoes. Willing to break the chains of bondage. Hungry for Jesus, and grateful for a ride to freedom.

On the road he opened up a dirty shoe box – hands shaking – to show us a picture he had saved. A snapshot of him doing a mission project at our home church. One of the best weeks of his life, helping people and serving his Savior. He’d kept it here, somehow safe, all this time. And a ragged, used up Bible. These pieces of hope – tucked away somewhere sacred so he’d never forget. They were tangible reminders that he is loved, that his life has purpose.  And he was clinging to that truth now, with all his might. Coming down from a dope high. Leaving everything behind. Family. Friends. Poverty. To Jesus – to become the man he always knew he should be.

And after we’d delivered him safely to the door of a ministry home who welcomed him with open arms, this song came on in my car:

“Lost are saved, find their way, at the sound of Your great Name. All condemned feel no shame, at the sound of Your great Name.”

Of course they do. They find their way, because He doesn’t ever forsake them. Why do I give up hope?

And the words washed over my soul:

“Every fear has no place, at the sound of Your great Name. The enemy, he HAS to leave, at the sound of Your great Name. “

Yes he does. Satan has to leave. And tears rolled down my face, finally. And I sang it to the top of my lungs:

“Jesus – worthy is the Lamb that was slain for us, Son of God and man. You are high and lifted up, and all the world will praise your great Name!”

What a beautiful moment, to know that one brother dear to my heart will heal in the arms of his Father now. To be reminded that others will follow. That God’s love is stronger than their addictions, their lack, their shame. To be reminded that my doubts are ridiculous compared to His love. To be reminded that He is still in the business of rescuing His broken ones and bringing us back to His heart.

Inconvenient People

Several times in the history of Hope Home, we have caused a conniption during church. Take a group of multi-ethnic, street smart, beautiful, tattooed, ex-delinquent and probably gang affiliated teenage girls straight up out of a juvenile center and plop them down into an almost all white, not too terribly diverse Baptist church in a pretty rural town and, you are sometimes going to cause a scene. You just are.

A few of these unfortunate disturbances have taken place during Communion time, much to my dismay.

Once, one of our former residents was there with her baby daddy. (hehe, I like saying that – BABYDADDY!) He was a super sweet guy who had been to church like- never. So, after everyone had drunk their Communion juice in unison, and had nicely placed the little cup into the allotted cup holder and were quietly praying, I heard an alarming SLURPPP! somewhere in my vicinity. I whipped my head to the side just in time to see him  leaning back, chin tilted upward, loudly drinking the remaining …. drops?…. from his cup. I gave him that one look that says —- OHMYGOSH, YOU’RE CAUSING A SCENE!! … until he put the cup down, grinned sheepishly, and whispered  “Well… I was thirsty!”  You. Were. Thirsty??!!

One day, one of my girls used her communion bread to symbolize a tiny airplane and was flying it over the pew in front of us. Sound effects and all. I shut that down pretty quickly.

Then, there have been a few times when, upon the beginning of Communion, I looked with horror at the very confused faces around me and realized that I had failed to explain the Lord’s Supper to this particular group of girls. At that point, we had to form a panicked Hope Home huddle in the middle of the pew so I could hurriedly explain it before the solemn man passed with the plate of bread because my kids FREAK OUT when they don’t know what’s going on. They freak out, people.

What can I say? We’re a barrel of fun. 🙂

With that said, I am so grateful that we belong to a small, genuine body of believers who scoop us up and love us despite all of our weirdness and issues. They are awesome. Every church should love inconvenient people as much as ours does.

For the Hard Days

Ministry is tough.

Some days we celebrate beautiful moments of triumph. Some days, it looks like every life we’ve invested in is marked for disaster.

It was on one of those particularly chaotic days recently that I let my soul sigh in dismay. What is the point of it all? Why strive to prompt change in lives that are held by such a death-grip of evil?

Then I heard this quiet voice, the only whisper that ever grabs the attention of my heart:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him.
  He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.”  Jeremiah 17:7

When chaos ensues and people disappoint us, we cling with all our might to the One who saves. Like firmly planted oaks we stand, our branches stretched out to provide shadows of hope to the broken, our roots reaching deep into the river of living water. Seeds of love planted will spring up as strong trees sown in faith, in their time.

Don’t give up, friends. Be encouraged. Your work is not in vain.

A Heart of Thanks

While the wind howls in my window tonight, I’m thinking about a sweet old man who eats at the Salvation Army.

His normal toothless smile faded earlier today when someone mentioned the weather. “I’m not looking forward to the cold.” His quiet words reflected on many of the dear faces in line and my heart sank as I spooned some extra rice onto his plate. He probably doesn’t have much of a home, and he’s probably going to be awfully cold this winter.

I know these things. I know homeless people suffer in extreme weather. I see them walking down the road, pushing their carts, and I feel sorry for them. But it’s different when I see their faces every week now. When I hand them a plate full of food and get rewarded with a hearty grin. When that one lady with the little yellow hat comes through, blessing us in Jesus’ name. When I see their joy and how they love on each other. When I see how thankful they are. And while my heart breaks for them, I kind of envy them too. 

When my toothless friend came back up for seconds, he nodded his head and thanked me profusely. “I’m just grateful for everything ya’ll do,” he said, smiling again. He’s about to face one of the first nights of what will probably be a long, hard winter. He’s worried about freezing in the days to come, yet words of thanks are overflowing from his heart to touch mine. I want a heart like his.

I wonder how many times I’ll learn this lesson; that true joy has nothing to do with our circumstances. To choose thanksgiving opens our eyes to all kinds of hope and doesn’t leave much room for the pain. It washes away the bitter and reminds us of our place in God’s hand. I want to be more like some of the impoverished people I’ve met. I want to find my peace in Christ alone. I want to know that if I had absolutely nothing to hold onto in this world, I would be satisfied in Him.

When you tuck your kids in tonight, please remember to pray for the many people who are suffering this winter. Let’s collect some blankets and make some soup and ease their burden as much as possible. And let’s remember to be thankful for every good gift that comes from our Father, even in the difficult places of life, for it is only here that we find pure joy.