BeCause

Going in, we were told that Cru19 (our every-other year US Staff conference) had the theme BeCause. It was intended “to celebrate together both the cause that God has called us to and the fact that God also wants us to be…be in His presence and be in love with Him.” I was excited about this theme.  I have to admit, although I love to “just be” fully with God—and I often counsel others to make sure they take time to rest in God’s love and reflect on his amazing grace and mercy in our daily lives—I often find it challenging to do so for myself…

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Cru staff worshiping together!

Yet that “Being” is so critical. I have been reflecting on this reality lately, as I have observed so many friends struggling in a wide range of circumstances in their lives: mid-life crises, challenging relationships, tensions due to finances or broken relationships, ambiguity in what is next, mental illness, cancer journeys, parenting challenges… How do we still remember who God is and how he is both the creator and sustainer of all things and the personal loving father who knows the number of hairs on my head and is acquainted with grief? How do we not just think about that intellectually, but also believe it, letting it impact our hearts and minds? How do we authentically worship Him with thanksgiving (Col 3:16-17)?

It is remembering who God is and just how life-transforming it is to have his grace and love at work in our lives that helps. I need to “fix my eyes on Jesus” as it says in Hebrews 12:2, remembering his love that took him all the way to the cross, despite all the pain and loss, so that I can worship him and “not grow weary and lose heart.”

I was just teaching my Sunday School kids the beginning of Revelation, and it was honestly a great reminder to me of just how unspeakably amazing and worthy of our devotion and worship God truly is. Both because he is the conquering king AND the suffering lamb. I want to worship him and cast my crowns and my self-focus aside!

The “Cause” element is also so important, and proved to be very encouraging and challenging at the Cru19 Conference.

One key focus was how we need to be united as we pursue the cause God has called us to as a ministry. Our call is to continue in evangelism and discipleship, but we must acknowledge that, in order to do so, we must be willing to identify and address the brokenness and divisions that unnecessarily divide us. We must humbly seek to understand one another in order to learn from and better serve one another, first within the body of Christ, and also with those outside of the body.

Truth is essential to this journey. We must be willing to acknowledge the truth of our own weakness, our selfishness, our blindness, our prejudices, our inadequacy (both individually and as communities). Yet not stop there… We must take that and cling to hope by trusting God for strength, giving grace to one another as God has given it to us, relying on one another with all our different gifts, and being willing to patiently walk through lament, sorrow, and pain with our fellow humans. We do not need to compare, but to come alongside; We do not need to defend ourselves, but rather die to ourselves; We do not need to equivocate the truth, but embrace the truth.

God is good, and I am thankful to be his child and to participate in what He is doing in the world, including among “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

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Our girls and their friends doing the Aruna Run at Cru19, a fundraiser for an amazing organization that helps enslaved women be freed and learn a trade.

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Safety or Fear?

It has been a long time since I posted. It is funny how I am always thinking of things I could blog about, but then often don’t get past the initial outline. Partly because I don’t take the time to sit down and work on it (since my sit-down-and-work time is pretty jam packed with tasks already), but partly because I am afraid…

That is weird, right? Why should I be afraid to share my thoughts? Why do I worry that people won’t assume the best of me if I try to share? I mean, I see myself as a learner who always has more to learn; I consider myself a moderate politically—yet I am afraid that if someone finds out one piece of my perspective or views, they will construct a whole image of me that is more based on their concept of “what people who hold that view” are like, than on who I actually am.

Well, our culture today…(Stay with me a minute, now, don’t roll your eyes – I am going to consider culture, not blame it). As I was saying, our culture today is fascinating. As has become very clear, we are in a time of extreme polarization in our country right now. We all know that social media is not helping with that either. We often live in little echo chambers, drawing in articles that will affirm how we already think, “yelling” at people we don’t know and assuming/assigning them bad motives so that we can keep our concept that we are “right” and they are “wrong”; we are “smart” and they are “stupid”; we care about people and they only care about themselves and their own interests. It doesn’t seem to matter which perspective you are coming from; this is how both sides are training themselves to feel.

It can feel like we are stuck with a choice: either (1) stop engaging and isolate or (2) keep engaging and risk constant judgment and critique. I personally am not a fan of either option, and I believe there has to be a third way. Part of the reason I think the choice is a false one is that, while on the surface it looks like a choice between “safety” and “fear,” both choices (with this framing) tend to lead to unhealthy fear.

img_3499.jpgChoosing isolation might feel safe at first, but by rejecting deep relationships, we reject both relational joys and relational skills. That inevitably leads to fear. I want my children to know how to engage in healthy disagreements, not seek to avoid them.

Yet, if in my relationships I avoid topics that feel touchy, I model a lack of depth that leads to isolation. Isolation means we neither feel known nor let people deeply know us. As a result, a narrative of fear plays in our heads: “what if my surfacy friend finds out something about me he doesn’t like and then rejects me? Then I will be even more isolated…” In addition, if we are a parent or mentor who has chosen the path of isolation from culture, we have a second current of fear: Will my children follow my example and fight culture’s influence too, or will they get sucked in by culture and therefore pull away from me?

On the other side, choosing engagement can also be dominated by fear. We might be afraid of misunderstandings – of people not assuming the best or really trying to understand us. We might be afraid to express our thoughts or to ask questions—even in a wondering kind of way—because people might label us backwards or stupid or uneducated or even bigoted.  Sometimes we try to make up for this by choosing a false form of “safety” based on displays of “power.” It may manifest in defensiveness, biting back with words, or just pulling into a deeper echo chamber, which is another form of going into isolation after all…

I think the better choice—a “third way” so to speak—is to choose engagement, most deeply in more personal contexts. It is to expect that we can have a real human connection across difference. It is to believe that, even if someone else is pre-disposed to make assumptions about me, I can choose to still assume the best about them and seek to build connection.  Quite frankly, this usually involves not focusing on social media so much, but intentionally engaging in my neighborhood, at my kids’ schools and activities, with students on campus—places where I can actually be vulnerable, be a listener, humbly serve, and share my heart and passions. Focusing on what I have in common with people is what draws me into this choice. We are all unique and creative human beings, made in the image of God; we all long for connection and affection; we all want to be part of something meaningful and impactful. Even if we think the solutions to our longings are different, we can connect over the longings themselves, and then go from there.

I was just recently in Washington DC on a trip for work. DC is certainly a very polarized place right now, to put it mildly. But it was fun to get into real conversations with people from different sides of the political divide. IMG_20190507_193842283_HDR

In one particular conversation, my new acquaintance and I had a rare opportunity to delve beyond the normal assumptions about the views of the other. In this case, it was a conversation about “religious freedom.” In fact, we simply named the labels, addressed them head on, and then went beyond them. We talked about how real people are so much more complex and don’t fit those labels. It turned our conversation into a dialogue about what it could look like to assume the best and not just push people into our boxes for them, but rather invite them to paint a picture of their passions and their complexities. Even though it didn’t change the fact that the labels have and will continue to dominate the landscape, I left encouraged. My heart was hopeful because I had made a real connection.

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A quote at the MLK monument in DC

 

I am confident that God calls us to pursue this path of gracious, respectful, yet vulnerable engagement; not hiding what we believe or think, but speaking it with grace and respect.  The Apostle Paul says that for those who follow Jesus, it was “the goodness and loving kindness of God” that saved and changed us (Titus 3:4), so we likewise should “be gentle and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” (Titus 3:2) and our speech should “always be gracious.”  In addition, the Apostle Peter says that, even when we engage directly about religion, sharing why we have such a deep hope in Jesus, we should do so “with gentleness and respect,” and combine it with “doing good” (1 Peter 3:15-17).

I like to listen. Yet I still have much to learn.  Do you want to engage too?

Light in Darkness

I have been thinking a lot about light and darkness lately. It is certainly relevant this time of year as we think about Jesus, as the light of the world, who came into a dark world to bring light and life and hope.

Our pastor recently described hope as a “pinhole of light.” It is not being imaginative and grasping at wishful thinking, but rather is seeing that there is reason for hope because certain things are true. For example, if we know God as compassionate and just and good, we can place our hope in Him and his promises.

When things are hard, what is good and life-giving shines all the more brightly. We appreciate what we have more when we know what it is not to have it—when we can recognize that certain things are not what we are entitled to, but blessings. This principle applies both to things and to relationships. The deepest relationships I have are not formed through perpetually positive interactions, such as watching movies, saying nice things, or even going on “epic vacations” together. If connections are kept at the safe “surface-level,” I find that there is still a fear in the back of my mind – “what if they find out about the real me, warts and all? What if they see that my life isn’t as perfect as it looks from the outside? Will they still want to be around me?”

In contrast, the moments of connection, understanding and love after sharing hard, deep thoughts or experiences together are what help me to feel known and loved. When my close friend sees that I am struggling with wisdom in parenting a certain child, and that I am broken over how my pride and failings can get in the way of parenting the way I want to, she can affirm that she understands and cares for me in the midst of that struggle. She can also rejoice with me as I take positive steps in improving my patience-level, she can pray with me as I take the long term view and keep pressing on, and she can help me feel safe and accepted even with my imperfections. A relationship like that brings rest and peace.

This kind of peace is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ demonstrates.  It is the message that God sees us in all our messy imperfections and with our selfish desires, and loves us. He knows us fully and deeply, and yet does not run away or say we are not good enough or reject us as inadequate. Instead, he does so much more than even a great friend can. He sacrifices himself for us, takes on the record of our inadequacy, and pays for it. Out of love for us, he gives us his perfect record, saying we are forgiven and accepted, not because of what we have done or will do, but because of what he has done. He takes our shame and grants to us honor, calling us his very own children.  He communicates to us: “now live well, loving and serving people whether they deserve it or not, not so that you are accepted, but because you have and do experience that kind of love and acceptance from me.” We do not deserve it, but this love and acceptance of us “while we were still sinners,” brings a kind of peace that permeates us, inside and out.  It is a peace that cannot be found anywhere else.

Jesus is the light of the world. Amazing, profound, life-altering light.

Talking about God…

You know how so many people think that topics you should avoid in conversation include religion, politics and sports? And this is not confined to the US. When I lived in Mexico long ago during a semester of college, I had a Mexican friend that I hung out with quite a bit remind me of this social norm (there, you especially avoid arguing about your favorite soccer team). He was surprised that I didn’t follow the norm very well. Well, I am not well-versed on sports teams (I think I am more like the Lego Movie citizens who just say “gooooo sports team” because it is what you are supposed to say). I have to admit that I don’t care enough about professional sports to work on that deficiency (sorry sports fans).  As for politics, I’m not going to go there…but I do care about what people think and why. IMG_1561

But I really do enjoy conversations about faith.  I love to hear different perspectives; I love to hear why people believe what they do, and what their questions are—whether related to their own faith or different faiths. I love to learn about how culture can affect religion and religion affect culture. I also love to share why my faith is so important to me, and how it causes me to value people and want to be a learner for life. I love to talk about Jesus – an amazing person and a polarizing figure throughout history. Real talk. Spiritual conversations don’t have to lead to tension and taking offense—it can just be sharing life. And sharing life is a huge step towards feeling known, connected, and cared for.

This summer, on our Portlandia summer mission, we had the joy of taking public transportation around Portland to a variety of college campuses to talk with students about their spiritual backgrounds and perspectives. We also had the opportunity to engage with the houseless of Portland and a wide range of other Portlanders by serving with different nonprofits—coming alongside them to learn how they care for and serve the poor in a big city. In addition, the staff ran training times covering topics ranging from how to study the Bible, how to use certain evangelism tools, being a learner in cross-cultural contexts, and even learning about the racism in Portland’s history.  I did a training on the importance of both Grace AND Truth in relationships – something I care a ton about. In addition, we had some great connection time in smaller discipleship groups with just a few students, and some one-on-one mentorship times.  Jeremiah and I traded off and on watching the kids, so we could both participate in the summer mission as much as possible.

I really enjoyed some of the spiritual conversations I had around Portland. So many of the people I talked to—albeit from incredibly wide-ranging experiences and backgrounds—were not phased at all by the topic of religion. In fact, they seemed to enjoy sharing their perspectives. I’ve decided that, overall, people like talking about what they think. They are thankful to have someone take an interest in them and their thoughts (in a deeper way than a facebook “like” or a rant), and to have a respectful conversation, even if it involves a difference of opinion.

There were, however, many days that I just stayed with the kids because Jeremiah was on campus and helping to lead trainings. We sometimes went to parks or checked out Buttes to hike around, or walked to Safeway for groceries. Or we did crafts, played games and read books at the house we were staying at. In that way, it wasn’t that different than a summer at home. Whether at home or in Portland, I also like to talk to my kids about life and faith. It is just part of our family’s mode—we talk to our kids about deep life issues, and think about how our faith affects how we view the world. It just feels normal—processing life with them, asking questions, considering why things are the way they are and what the Bible and Jesus have to do with our day to day lives. I certainly don’t have all the answers.  But conversations don’t have to have beginnings and endings all the time… I take seriously the concept in Deuteronomy 11:19, where God says to his people that they should speak of Him and His teachings in the midst of life (“Teach them to your children, speaking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”).

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It is fun and right to make spiritual conversation normal and applicable to our lives, not confined to a certain “Bible study time” or church on Sunday. When it is in the midst of life, it means it is also in the context of my mess-ups as well as theirs, and we are able to truly talk about why I believe Christianity holds such a hope-filled message that is for imperfect people NOT trying to posture their way into religious superiority, but accepting God’s amazing grace.

In the same way, why should it be weird to talk about spiritual things with friends? I want to know more about how my friends process life. I don’t want to stick to conversations about weather, career, and kids’ activities. I want to feel real connection. So lets choose respect and seek to listen and understand one another; lets avoid ambivalence and judgmentalism.

Fantastic Fun!

I know that I am often quite serious here on our blog. But I do want my friends to know that our lives are in fact full of silliness and laughter. Every day, I laugh with joy at the blessings God has showered on me. When scripture says that “Children are a gift from the Lord” (Psalm 127:3), it is so true!

The kids each make me laugh in their own way. I love how unique God has made each of my children—their gifts and their personalities are so precious and amazing. Here are a few pictures that barely begin to capture their joy, creativity, and adventurous spirits.

We have so many adventures with imagination at home, around town, and when we can take time away from busy daily life. I love seeing these kids be kids, while at the same time growing in love and character.

We had fun exploring the wetlands together near Sacramento, climbed trees in Pleasant Hill, and Isaiah got to release baby Salmon (called Fry) into the Sacramento River.

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Super Sibling Silliness!

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Watching taxidermy of a Condor wing at UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day

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Yogurt Ice Cream! Yum!

Love and weariness…

I love deeply. I want to fix things. I have learned, however, through my journey of life so far—including authentic friendships, mentoring college women, and doing foster care—that I have very little power to “fix” anything. Yet love and sacrifice continue to be powerful, most clearly shown in the example of Jesus himself (the ultimate of both love and sacrifice—leading to life out of death, and hope for so many). Love and sacrifice are possible for us normal humans too, however, and enable transformation. But life is messy, and tiring.

I have been reflecting lately about just how common abuse and suffering are, even just in the sample set of people that I have personally known and interacted with. I know so many women who have suffered and experienced things I wish I could just pluck out of their life story. Yet there it is—part of their story—a glaring wound. It can feel like cracks in a mirror that they keep looking into, preventing them from seeing their beauty and preciousness.

When I keep hearing about stories of physical and emotional trauma, mistreatment, manipulation, loneliness, racism and intimidation, I get troubled and weary to my core. I have a deep trust in God’s sovereignty and compassion, and that gives me hope that will not be extinguished, but I can’t help but get overwhelmed at times.  It is like a blanket of numbness and uncertainty, causing me to feel inadequate to help the people I love to process the consequences of traumatic events in their lives.

I firmly believe that to most effectively serve and care for someone, it is crucial to understand his or her story; I must listen and hear.  Doing so humbles me, helps me to grow, and gives me tremendous compassion as well as love and friendship as I enter into both ups and downs with my friends. Over the years, I have often felt over my head in terms of how to give advice as a friend or mentor in a variety of scenarios.  My eyes have been opened to a greater level of brokenness in our world than I ever knew of growing up in my sheltered environment.

I desperately want to help the people I love to find healing from wounds that have been inflicted on them by others or that come out of deep internal struggles they have. I believe that God’s Word has wisdom that will help, and I love to share the wisdom that I find there. Yet even as I share, I try to always do so with love, respect, and a willingness to learn. I am constantly a learner and always have more to learn, about life, culture, trauma, etc.  So I want to walk with my friends, and encourage and remind them (and myself) to pursue a path of hope.

The only long term hope I really see and have is grounded in the fact that we have a God who cares. Jesus in fact experienced pain relationally and physically; he knew rejection and sorrow. Jesus’ love led him to the cross, to take on the judgment for all our wrongdoing, so that we could be forgiven and have new life in Him.  It doesn’t erase hardship, but gives us life, strength and hope.  He gives us an identity in Him and in our future with Him, not in our circumstances. The Bible presents a unique picture of health that is grounded, not in “overcoming” out of one’s own strength, but in receiving the gift of forgiveness, healing, hope and strength from God.

2 Corinthians 4:16 says “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”

What does all this really mean for my day to day, however, since the concept of hope can feel very elusive? I think resting our identity in the Lord can help us embrace and pursue “adulthood.”  So what does it look like to be an adult?  Well, the end goal (which I pray and hope for both my children and the students I work with) is to be a person who is confident in who he or she is (I will use she here).  Her identity (for a follower of Jesus) is grounded in how God sees her; she knows she is made in His image and sees herself as equally valuable to other humans, despite broken aspects of culture communicating otherwise. Because she knows God’s love, she is sensitive and caring towards others, even when they don’t deserve it. She is willing to go out of her comfort zone to seek to understand and love others different from her.  She is able to submit to authorities in her life (such as a boss, or even a peer in a position of authority) because she knows that a role or position doesn’t change her value. She doesn’t hide from pain and sorrow, but walks through those things with others and with the Lord, knowing that strength is found in trusting God in the midst of struggle, not in ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t matter.  She takes responsibility for her growth and for how she reacts to what people do to her, even if they are mean-spirited and trying to demean her (this is not taking responsibility for them, just for her reaction); she forgives freely and loves sacrificially.

This picture is not a life of ease, but it does involve peace, growth, and love.  I freely admit that I do not live it this out perfectly in my own life, because of my struggles and failings; yet knowing God’s steadfast love and grace in my life enable me to believe that following Christ’s example in these ways is what will lead to joy and life. I am thankful that I don’t have to be perfect, because God’s love is not based on my performance, but on His work and His goodness.

Psalm 145:8 “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

And so we love, and will not grow weary in doing good.

It’s Official

Today was our family’s second adoption day!  I thought about calling this blog post “We are complete.” Then I realized that might sound a bit too much like my happiness is defined by having a certain number of children or by achieving an official legal status. That isn’t true. I was content with 3 birth kids; I was content with 4 kids, including one beautiful adopted four-year-old girl;  I didn’t need more.  But God had more in mind. I am rejoicing, however, in the “official” culmination of much waiting. God led us to our precious Laticia—who we cannot imagine life without—and then he brought Shylee into our lives, an extra blessing! Our littlest one is now a Kepner.  We just had our adoption hearing today, and our little (almost two-year-old) is now Shylee Grace Kepner. That is the first name she has had since birth, but a new middle name and last name. She has been with our family for over a year, but now she is truly “adopted.” Her identity has shifted from one family to another. This doesn’t mean her past or her birth family are no longer important—they will always be part of who she is. It just means that her identity, her security, her deepest place of belonging, have shifted. Both Laticia and Shylee joined our family officially in 2017: one in January, one in December. It has been quite a year!

Because Shylee was not legally ours until now, we have not been able to share our story of how she joined our family with many of you.  I will not tell all of her life story here.  That is her story—it is for her to share as she grows and embraces it, just as Laticia’s story of her past and what it means to have joined a new family is hers to share. I merely want to share how God has indeed shown our family (and me personally) much “grace” in how he brought her into our lives.  It is an amazing story: a story of answered prayer and miraculous healing.

We first heard about Shylee (without knowing her name) in June 2016. We just knew that our foster-to-adopt daughter had a baby sister, and she was not in the foster care system.  My heart was touched, and even though we were in the throes of helping our new, precious 4-year-old adjust to our home and family, I started praying that we would get to meet the little sister, and that she might even join our family.  I felt a little conflicted about wanting that, because, as a foster parent, I had learned to authentically wish the best for birth families. Yet I also believed it would be best for Laticia and for “baby sister” to be together.  Although I don’t usually pray for specific dates or numbers, God placed on my heart to pray that she would join us by December.

Then, at the end of July, 2016. I received a text from our state adoptions worker on Laticia’s case (since we had only had her a few months at the time), saying that her baby sister “was declared legally deceased last night…she was then resuscitated and is being kept alive by machines.” My heart sunk. I was driving in the car with Jeremiah at the time, coming back from a CPR recertification class. I immediately wrestled with the idea of disappointed hopes. Why would God allow this precious little baby to die? How could that be the end? I had felt so confident that I was supposed to pray for this little one – this wasn’t how it was supposed to turn out! Then my heart went to how broken the world is—there is so much tragedy and loss everywhere! So many parents experience the pain of loss—this wasn’t even my child, and yet I felt a small piece of that pain. Tears sprung to my eyes. But I just couldn’t believe she was gone. Jeremiah and I prayed for a miracle. We prayed that her brain would be spared, despite the lack of oxygen and the damage to her little body. We prayed that she would be healed and that we would still be able to bring her home if that was God’s plan.

We prayed and we expected to hear more soon… I have to admit, however, that fear also sprang into my heart, even as I prayed. What if she already had brain damage? What if she was permanently disabled? Was I still prepared to open my heart to her if that was the case? When we first pursued adoption, we had said we were open to a lot of risk, but not known severe disabilities.  I already felt stretched thin with four kids, homeschooling, and working part time.  Would I be able to handle the upheaval of our lives? I felt like I had no way of knowing; no concept of how to prepare… I pushed it aside. I must pray, and trust God to give me the grace I need to face whatever decision might come. Right now, this was a battle for her life—I didn’t want to focus on myself and my fears. “She needs you, God. Please heal her. I need you God—help me to trust and to hope.”

For several weeks, I kept my phone on me, expecting to hear a call one way or the other. All we heard was she was surviving so far.  My thoughts constantly went to her – the little baby I had never met or seen.  Maybe she would be close to being released, and they would need a foster family? I knew our name had been shared. No more news. We had no way of getting more info; we just waited and prayed. We didn’t tell the kids anything…

Months slipped by. Could she still be in the hospital? Did the county really have our name? Then we heard “not looking good. She probably won’t make it.” Yet we didn’t believe it. We kept praying. We heard rumors of other results of the infection that had taken over her little body. I kept fighting in prayer, but my thoughts went to “can she have quality of life? If it has been this long, how could it be possible that there isn’t severe damage?” As we confided with a few people the situation, they counseled caution. “You don’t know what you might be getting into. You have to think of your other kids too… Don’t say yes before you know more.” In fact, a doctor we mentioned what we knew about the situation to said “that does not sound good.”

I wouldn’t give up; I continued to plead with God to protect her, to heal her. Although it was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, and we couldn’t really let many people into knowing what we were dealing with (due to confidentiality), over time God gave me peace. He seemed to be saying to my heart—“I will give you strength for one day at a time. Trust me.” There was no promise of healing, no rose-colored glasses, just an expectation of future grace, one day at a time.

Towards the end of October, we finally got a call from the county. We finally knew her name – Shylee. They said she was likely to be released in the coming weeks, and asked if we were interested. The woman on the phone didn’t have much medical info for me… But I said “yes, we are interested.” How could I say anything else? I was invested – God was going to provide and guide us each step. We immediately went into a crazy re-licensing process—ultimately unnecessary confusion since we had not yet finalized Laticia’s adoption and were still with our agency. But hey, it got us to fix up a few more things in the house, and gave me something to focus on that I could move forward in, since I felt so helpless to move anything forward otherwise. We also told the kids about her, and they started to pray that she could join our family and that she would be OK. It was so sweet to see the faith and passion of little Laticia as she prayed each night for the sister she had never met.

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We finally got permission to go see her in the hospital Nov 8. She was 10 and a half months old. We met some of the nurses that had been caring for her, heard more about her medicines, feeding tube, physical therapy. Trying not to feel overwhelmed, we went to her room. She was sleeping, but woke up, and we got to hold her. I had been expecting a tiny baby—she was not tiny. But it was an amazing feeling to put a face to the “baby sister” I had prayed for for 4 months already. She was visibly wary and uncomfortable. There was one main nurse she really relaxed with and smiled for; the whole nursing staff said she sure had a strong will… I resolved to earn her trust. We were invited to a medical meeting the next week, and then began to really visit in earnest. At least one of us visited almost every day for about 2 weeks. We took the kids to meet her at the hospital.  It was the first time Laticia had ever met her sister; I watched her face closely as we walked into the playroom, wanting to read her face and remember the moment.

Amazingly, some of the students from UC Davis involved in our Cru movement volunteered weekly at the Children’s Hospital, and knew Shylee before we did. I even had started to mentor one of them as a new follower of Jesus who was so excited to grow in her faith. When I mentioned the situation to her when we were sharing prayer requests, we realized that she already knew Shylee. She had taken her to the playroom at the hospital and sat with her. She loved her! In fact, she had made a beautiful drawing and sign with Shylee’s name on it that was on her hospital room door when we first visited. I still have that sign. Another student we knew was also there and knew Shylee—what a blessing! God was caring for her in so many ways.

We thought Shylee would be released one weekend, so Jeremiah rushed home from a conference he was attending. But then it was another week before she was actually released due to medicines and adjusting to the new G-tube they had just surgically put in. We knew there was potentially a long road ahead—she refused to eat or drink much, wouldn’t lay on her tummy, or crawl at all, and seemed to either be pretty quiet or screaming.

This little one had been through a lot. Yet it was a miracle she was alive and moving at all!  God had been gracious indeed. We brought her home on Nov 25, 2016, the day after Thanksgiving. As I was thanking God for Shylee, I also had to marvel at the fact that he had truly answered my prayers from back in June that we would have her by December, with amazing specificity. It was as if he was confirming once again to my heart what the Bible indicates: “I am in this with you.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

The kids immediately embraced the goal of teaching her how to crawl and eat. That first night, all four of them crawled in a circle around her on the floor, as she turned her head to stare at them.  In addition, each one of them would pray—when it was there turn to pray before dinner or before bed—that she would learn to eat and crawl and walk.

As the weeks went by, the safety and security of our home and our constant affection began to have an effect. She stopped screaming inconsolably at night and started to lean towards us instead of away; she began to reach for toys beyond her immediate reach; she started to lay on her stomach without screaming; she started to pick at food and took some liquids from a spoon.

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Then it was like she took off developmentally. It was truly amazing to watch. She started drinking out of a bottle and began to eat finger foods.  In a matter of months, she went from sitting to crawling to walking. By the summer, she was experimenting with balance, stepping onto and over little bumps over and over, like it was her favorite thing in the world. Once she mastered that, she tried jumping and climbing. Now she can do a somersault and the splits on command, and tries to imitate anything the other kids do. We are well beyond food worries, now having battles over whether she will eat her veggies before she gets more “cra-cka” or other favored item.

In May, when we had gone several months without using the feeding tube and were past flu season, the doctors removed the tube. At that time, I went back to the hospital to visit the nurses. I walked in and Shylee started walking around the hallways, pushing and climbing into the little toy cars that they use in the walkways. The nurses were amazed and started calling the therapists and others, saying “you have to come see this.” I treasure the memory of their excitement, their laughter, their joy at seeing her doing so well. They had cared for her for months, not knowing what would happen. Then the head nurse asked if she could take me up to “the tenth floor” where she had been barely kept alive with the machines for so long. She said “they have to see this.”

So Shylee pushed the toy car into the elevator as we followed the nurse up to the tenth floor. I hadn’t met any of these doctors before, but they had saved my daughter’s life. We met one, who called another, who called across the street to ask another to come, who called someone else. They all stood there watching her in amazement. They said “thank you” for coming back. “We never see this.” “This is amazing.” I met a male nurse who looked at her and said “I sat by you so many nights,” and a female doctor who said “You gave me so many gray hairs.” So many people knew her—she had been with them, though never really alert, for about 2 months.  I don’t even know how to describe how touched I was by the experience. I was amazed, with tears in my eyes. Before I even knew Shylee—when all I was doing was praying for the unknown baby—these doctors were caring for her. God had taken care of her and used so many amazing people in the process. Their reactions also deepened my awareness of just how much of a miracle her recovery is! And that causes me to praise God—some things are just supposed to lift our eyes to heaven.

As time goes on and Shylee’s HUGE personality is a fixture in our home, it is easy to forget where she came from. It is easy to forget that she is a miracle! God brought her from death to life, and then from life to flourishing. We cannot explain it; we did not deserve it—it is just a pure and simple gift of God.

This is particularly profound for us because we believe it is a picture of what God does for us spiritually.  God has a beautiful plan for human flourishing, and yet we are so broken from our own failures and the hurts done to us that we can’t see or find it. We look to so many other things to try to fix it—we want to control our lives, we want to dull the pain, we want to overcome. But we can no more fix ourselves than Shylee could decide to heal herself and get off the machine that was both breathing for her and pumping her blood through her little body. She was almost dead physically; we are dead spiritually. God had to heal her physically, and he has to give us new life spiritually.

And what Shylee’s story makes me think of more than anything is the kind of life that God wants for us. He didn’t just heal her. For those of you who know her, you can see already that she doesn’t just live—she lives life to the fullest. If she could step over something, she will balance on it and jump off of it! It reminds me that God doesn’t just want to give me life, but abundant life (John 10:10). God doesn’t just forgive us; he gives us Christ’s perfect record when we believe in him and receive his gift (Rom 3:21-26). He doesn’t just love us; he adopts us as his children. He doesn’t just want us to survive, but to “abound in hope” (Rom 15:13).

By grace we have been saved.  Praise God for his abundant grace!