Monday, January 25, 2016

ALL things for good...

A few months ago I asked God a very specific question, and He gave me a very detailed answer.

Now before I tell you what the question was, you should probably know a little bit about the timing of our adoption. In case you missed this blog, I shared that God started speaking to us specifically about starting adoption now on October 17, 2011. At the time adoption was a "someday" dream. Our plan was not to start a family until we'd been married for 3 - 5 years... and then to start our family with a biological child or two before adopting. So imagine our surprise when God started telling us to adopt first, and adopt now, only 2 and 1/2 years into our marriage!

The Lord asked me some very specific questions that night. Questions like "Is 'I'm not ready to be a mom yet' a good enough excuse to wait? Do you think any child is ready to be an orphan?" and the one that really got me... "What if there is a little girl or little boy out there - right now - waiting for a mommy and you aren't coming?!" His prompting did a lot to put the orphan crisis in perspective for us... and we began actively pursuing our adoption from Thailand less than 4 months later.

I really thought it would be a quick process. I just knew that if God had called us to start the process NOW instead of later - then there had to be a reason. I expected to find out that maybe that night, October 17, 2011 - was the night our daughter was born! Or maybe it was when she was placed in an orphanage? There had to be a reason God was speaking to our hearts so urgently!

And then... 4 years passed... and we still weren't (aren't!) even matched with a child.

It seems confusing, right?

And considering we're approved for a child 3 years old or younger - that means that our daughter wasn't born when God started pushing us toward adoption. As a matter of fact, she wasn't even conceived!

A few months ago I started thinking about this timeline, and how confusing it has been for us. As I mulled it all over in my mind I blurted out...

"Why God? Why did you start speaking to us then?! Kate wasn't even born yet... and she couldn't have even been conceived! Her birth parents might not have even met yet when you started prompting us to pursue her. So why? Why start our process then... especially if you knew how long and hard it was going to be?! Why not just speak to us about adoption 2 years later, and then make our process go smoothly? (Instead of the rocky road we've been traveling for 4 years!) I don't understand God! WHY?" 

What happened next was unbelievable.

Have you ever watched a movie scene where the character sees their whole life flash before their eyes? Well, that's similar to what happened to me. In an instant, God had flashed the answer - the lengthy, detailed answer with lots and lots of specific examples - before my eyes. (Ask and you shall receive, right?) What He revealed was incredible.

God showed me ONE relationship. Just one out of the many that I've made since we started this adoption. And He showed me just how far-reaching the effects of that relationship have been - like hundreds of ripples from one tiny stone dropped into a large pond. 

.       .       .

Her name is Heather. We went to college together, and while I'm sure our paths crossed and we may have even met at some point - we weren't friends. We weren't even Facebook friends! But our adoption changed that.

Heather (far left), two of my dearest neighbor friends (Natalie & Kate), and I 
at an early brunch the day before she left to meet her baby girl in the Bahamas!
(Ladies, we really need to take more pictures together!) 

She found my blog through a comment on another adoption blog - clicked through and read our difficult story. We were just in the beginning stages of our adoption... struggling to find an agency to work with. They were too - as they were adopting from a very uncommon country (The Bahamas - her husband's birth country). She offered to answer any questions I might have, and thought that maybe sharing our stories could help each other. I suggested meeting for lunch, and she accepted.

I think that first lunch lasted about 3 hours. I was completely smitten with her little boy Mason, and it was SO good to share about our difficult situations and try to figure out next steps. That first lunch quickly turned into a second, and a third, and before I knew it a real friendship had formed!

After Rusty and I found an agency and (officially) started our adoption, we began house hunting. As soon as I told Heather we were looking (during one of our lunches, of course) she insisted we consider her neighborhood, Crestwood. (A neighborhood that was not even on our radar!) I tried to dismiss her suggestion, but she would not be deterred! She calmed my fears about the location and school systems, and pushed again and again that we consider looking there.

As hesitant as we were initially.... it turns out that Crestwood was exactly where we were supposed to be! We met some of our closest neighbor-friends (one who happens to be an adoptive mom named Kate!) in Heather's front yard. She sent us the photo and phone number for our sweet little "For Sale By Owner" house. She was the witness who signed our purchase agreement when we decided it was "the one". And this lovely little neighborhood that she insisted we consider has now been the biggest source of life, love, and encouragement for us. We love our neighbors like family. The 13 children on our street are some of the most precious little ones you'll meet! We are experiencing a sense of community we've never had any where else. We feel known. We feel inspired creatively! It's been good for us emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally.

Rusty's little side venture (RJackson Media), which helps us make a little bit of extra income, never would've been started if we hadn't moved to this neighborhood. Some of his first clients were our neighbors! And for some strange reason, the property value in this neighborhood has shot up drastically (compared to other areas of Birmingham). So we're in a better position financially too!

But that's not all. Heather wasn't just our "realtor" (haha) and "adoption encourager", she is also now a Board Member for our nonprofit The Sound of Hope. I never could have pulled off our big event last May without her! She's also singularly responsible for introducing us to Project for Awesome - a video competition that awarded us $15,000 in 2015 and helped provide education for the 209 children in our care!

Heather, Mason, Jeremy, & Karis the day they came home from the Bahamas!

And of course, best of all, Heather and her husband Jeremy are such sweet friends. She is so talented, creative, thoughtful, kind, encouraging, and REAL. I can't imagine my life without her, Rusty has loved getting to know Jeremy, and we both adore their two beautiful, snuggly babies Mason and Karis (who was adopted from the Bahamas in 2013!)

And as I stepped back and surveyed all those little ripples, wide-eyed from what God has done in my life through that ONE relationship, he said gently...

"See? It's not always what you expect, but I am always working. I knew this was the timeline you needed, for reasons you couldn't see. It wasn't just about Kate. It wasn't just about preparing her for you, or you for her. It's always been about so. much. more.
I work ALL things together for the good of those who love me dear. ALL THINGS. I've been working these past 4 years for your good and Rusty's good. I put you in a neighborhood where you would be blessed with the best community. I made sure you would grow mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I've surrounded you with special relationships. I've made sure you were cared for financially. I've spurred your creativity on, and put you somewhere you would be encouraged to try new things. These are all ways that I am preparing the way for Kate too... preparing a loving home and community for her when the time is right.
But I'm also working in other ways too! I work ALL things together for the good of those who love me. It's not just you dear.... my plan is bigger than that. I've also been working on behalf of the 209 children you have in your care around the world! Because I care for orphans, and I'm always working behind the scenes to make sure those children are provided for too.
I'm at work in ALL THINGS."

I told Heather about all this, and she too was amazed. She told me, "Ericka - if you hadn't been pursuing your adoption right then, we probably never would've met! If you'd waited 2 years, I would've already been home with Karis! I stopped reading adoption blogs once she was placed with us and focused on her. We might never have become friends!"

.       .       .

It is humbling for me to realize how much bigger God's plan is than mine. It is overwhelming to think that this is just one example taken from one relationship He has added to my life through this adoption. I have become friends with some of the most precious women because of our adoption. If this is the affect just one relationship has had on the past 4 years... if this is how becoming friends with just one new person has changed the course of my life - I can't imagine what I would see if I could view the past 4 years through God's eyes! I'm so grateful that He was gracious enough to give me this little glimpse into what He's been up to!

I am comforted by the truth that He is never idle. He wastes nothing. He is always at work... redeeming, renewing, and enriching our lives. 

So whatever your struggle is right now dear one, remember that there is so much truth in Romans 8:28. He is working ALL things together for your good! You may not be able to see it right now, but you can trust that you are in His hand, and He is ultimately in control, unfolding what is best for you in ways that only He can. And maybe, just maybe, if you ask Him... He will give you a little glimpse into His goodness.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sometimes your arms get tired.

November was difficult for me.

Those of you who follow this blog and our story, know that we've had an unbelievably long adoption journey. We've spent the better part of 4 years working and waiting to adopt a little girl, without any timeline for matching or travel.

In April our agency told us they felt confident we'd be matched with a child by or before the end of the year. In November, they took that estimate back. For months we thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel getting brighter and closer... only to suddenly have it grow dim and indiscernible again. It didn't kill my faith... but it sure did bruise and batter it. I found it harder and harder to be hopeful. I still believed God had called us to adopt, and I still believed He was working on our behalf... but I was just... tired.

And then we took a trip to Thailand. Our first stop was to visit The Refuge, our Children's Home for refugee kids from Burma. The kids met us with flower crowns, handmade gifts, letters, and signs. They hugged us and celebrated us, and brought out dinner and treats. The House Parents are dear friends (we actually share an anniversary and were a part of their wedding ceremony in 2011), and they too greeted us warmly. And in the midst of our welcome... the House Mom, SerNeGay, pulled me aside. "I want to show you something", she said. She took my hand, led me into the kitchen, and opened up the refrigerator. Waiting inside was this beautiful cake she'd baked and decorated just for us.

See you soon baby Kate Jackson. 

I couldn't hold back the tears. Later, she told me they pray for Kate, by name, every night.

Seeing that cake did something to me. I know we have a lot of people praying for us... I do. And I truly believe those prayers are at work on our behalf... sustaining us, protecting our daughter, and preparing the way for us to bring her home! But there was something about seeing that message in icing that renewed my hope. It was a sugary declaration... a lovingly crafted statement of faith.

I'm reminded of the story in Exodus, Chapter 17, of Joshua and the Israelites battling the Amalekites, while Moses looked on from a hill. He had already used his staff (referred to at this point as the "staff of God") to do some incredible things. God was moving through it in powerful ways! It helped him perform signs and wonders before Pharaoh, that ultimately pushed the ruler to let the Israelites go. It parted the Red Sea so that the Israelites could walk through on dry land. It even brought water forth from a rock when the Israelites complained they were thirsty. When Moses was obedient and faith-full, God used his staff to perform miracles. And He was about to do it again.

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua,“Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” 
So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.  
- Exodus 17: 8-13

Did you catch that? Moses' hands grew tired.  Moses. The guy who talked to a burning bush. The guy who faced down Pharaoh. The guy whose staff parted the Red Sea. He got tired. He didn't lose faith... he didn't lose hope... he just got tired. He couldn't keep his arms up. Because he was human.

He knew God was working on his behalf. The Amalekites had attacked the Israelites unprovoked. Moses knew God would protect and provide for his people. He had seen miracle after miracle. As a matter of fact - a miracle was unfolding right in front of him at that very moment! God was helping Joshua win the battle! That is, until Moses' arms got tired and dropped beside him. That's when two of his friends - Aaron and Hur - stepped up to help. They too believed in God's power. They too had seen these miracles, and they were witnessing a miracle again. They knew if Moses just continued to be obedient (and kept his staff raised, as God instructed him to do) that this victory would come to fruition. So when Moses got too tired to hold up his own hands, they held them up for him.

My arms have been tired lately. I know, without a doubt, that God has called us to adopt a little girl from Thailand. He confirmed that to us in some truly miraculous ways. I know that her name is Kate, and that name has God's hand on it too. I believe that He is working on our behalf behind the scenes, even if we can't see it. And I believe, I truly do, that one day she will be home and in our arms.

But sometimes my arms get tired. Sometimes it's hard to hold this staff of HOPE up above my head for the world to see. Sometimes my legs get tired too. Some days it's hard to keep putting one foot in front of the other on this long, difficult adoption road. And on those days, I desperately need prayers... but I also need action. I need someone to help hold up my hands. I need someone to put my arm over their shoulder, and let me lean on them as I walk. It helps when people step out in faith and show me that they believe in our miracle too.

So when Connie sent Kate a bunny from Cambodia, and Stefanie bought her a cross for her room... when Meredith made her a custom print, and Lynn sent glitter letters... when Katie bought her a special book, and SerNeGay baked and decorated the sweetest little heart-shaped cake...  those tangible things showed me that my friends really do believe Kate is coming home. Those were the moments my precious sisters held up my hands.

Sometimes it feels silly to hope, and tiresome to have faith. After all... I'm only human. And unlike Moses - I can't physically see the miracle unfolding before me (even though I do believe it's happening!) But when so many people are praying... when friends say again and again "she WILL come home"... when they say too, with longing in their voices, "we can't wait for Kate to be here!"... it doesn't seem so lonely or so difficult to keep hope alive.

Adoption is never easy. It requires hope, faith, and a lot of strength and determination too. If you have a friend who is adopting right now, ask yourself what you can do to help "hold up their arms". Try to find a tangible way to show that you're believing alongside them! And if it's you going through a difficult adoption and you're arms are feeling tired - give yourself some grace! You're only human. (If Moses got tired, you're allowed to be tired sometimes too.)

SerNeGay gave me such a gift when she made that cake, and so many of you have given me similar gifts again and again over the past 47 months. So thank you, dear friends, for helping me hold up my HOPE when my arms get tired. Together, I know, we will watch our miracle unfold!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A New Year with New Hope

It's January again. 2015 has come and gone, and here we are... celebrating a new year. Our friends have all gone home from the festivities. Only a couple of "Happy New Year" hats remain to remind me of countdowns and confetti. The house is quiet. I should be taking down the Christmas tree, but I wanted to enjoy it one more day.

As I sit on the couch, with a fire in the fireplace and lights twinkling, I look at our ornaments. All our ornaments have a special story tied to them, and they mean a great deal to me. I love looking back at a tree full of memories. But this year, one ornament has stuck out from all the rest. This beautiful silver one my cousin gave me several years ago.

HOPE. It's what I've needed the most this Christmas. It's what I've needed the last 36 months of our adoption journey, and it's what I need to get me through the months to come as we continue to wait for our little girl.

We didn't get our Christmas miracle - though I know so many of you prayed with us. We are still not matched with a child. And yes, on Christmas night, I am not ashamed to admit that I snuggled up in Rusty's arms on the couch... turned off the lights.... stared at our tree... and cried until my hair and his shirt were wet with tears. Oh how I long for my little girl to be home!

But honestly, for the most part - I've had peace this Christmas. That was not the case last year. I was miserable (and miserable to be around) last Christmas. But most days were good days this year. I truly believe it's because so many of you were praying for me... for us. Your prayers sustained me. And as I've finally gotten to slow down a little, God has been revealing some incredible things to me about our adoption (and I can't wait to share them here!)

For 2 and 1/2 years we worked constantly to find an agency, and complete the mounds and mounds of paperwork required of us to pursue this adoption. It filled every spare minute of our time. And then suddenly, it was over - and that paperwork went to Thailand. For the last 18 months it's been sitting on someone's desk - and we've had nothing to do but wait. So to cope, I've kept myself busy.

We have traveled constantly. There have been very few days that our suitcases were actually unpacked and put away since July 2014. We've been to India, Burma, Africa, Switzerland, and twice to Thailand for work. We've visited family and friends, and had speaking engagements all over the South. We organized our very first major event for The Sound of Hope. We worked to finish our office space. We started a side business using Rusty's video/photography skills. And we've had very little time to slow down, to rest, to reflect.

I'll admit that it's been easier that way... because if I don't slow down, the grief doesn't find me. If I just stay busy, then I don't have time to sit and cry about my daughter not being home. If my head is full of things to do, then my heart doesn't ache so much. But the truth is, it hasn't been healthy.

I've been sick more often the past 18 months than I have been in years. Bronchitis, fever viruses, colds, and the crud. We've felt the strain physically, emotionally, mentally, and in our marriage - because when you never rest, stress runs rampant. I have run myself ragged and I know I can't do it anymore.

I've talked to a few trusted friends about this, and gotten some great advice from them. One stressed how much I need a weekly Sabbath. The other forced me to order this book. (I'm lucky to have them both in my life! They were right!) I haven't even finished it, and yet this book has been changing my life in the BEST way. (If you haven't read it, you really should!) I've finally started to let myself slow down and rest, and I've heard God's voice in new ways.

I'm looking forward to sharing with you what God's been speaking to me through this blog. I haven't blogged or journaled enough the past 2 years and I know those things give me life! We've had some incredible experiences in all our travels, and I'm sad I haven't taken the time to document or share them. (Look out for some back-dated blogs coming soon from our travels this Fall!)

So as I focus on a New Year, I resolve to rest more and to write more... to get healthier physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. I resolve to spend less time checking off endless "to do" lists and more time having hearts to hearts with friends. I challenge myself to not be afraid to slow down and reflect (even when it breaks my heart)... to take time to be creative and not just productive. I commit to working toward a project that I believe is a "God idea" (I'd appreciate your prayers as it's quite daunting! I can't share any details now - but I promise I will when I can!) And most of all... I resolve to keep the HOPE in my heart alive as we continue waiting on Kate to come home.

What are you hoping for in 2016?