AKA, The Rest of My Foster Care Calling Story
I mentioned when sharing about my calling to foster care that there was even more back story than I initially realized, with things I now see as stepping stones on the way to this moment. Let me start ten or so years ago . . .
Ever since being awakened in college to the notion that the Christian life wasn’t just all about me and my relationship with God but about serving others as Jesus did—feeding the poor, clothing the naked, sacrificing myself for the good of others—I was “ruined for life,” as my favorite religion professor said. Over time, I’ve learned a little more what he meant. The conviction that loving Jesus meant loving those who have the least and suffer the most carries the burden, then, of doing something. And as life grew busier in adulthood and I found less time and energy to volunteer at the homeless shelter or teach ESL classes, like I did in college, I felt more weighed down by feelings of pressure and guilt that I was not doing enough. Not to “earn salvation,” or anything like that, but to do what God wanted.
I had this feeling that to be a true follower of Jesus, I would have to sell everything I had and move to Africa.
I laughed at myself when I would say this, knowing I was generalizing with this drastic example (though as Matt mentioned in his sermon last Sunday, we actually did know some people who did actually sell everything and move to Africa!) but I still found it odd that people would laugh when I said things like “I want to serve the poor.” Didn’t every Christian feel this way? (I was so glad to hear Jenny Youngman, a former colleague of mine, turned singer-songwriter, articulate this same thing about “moving to Africa.” I can’t wait for her next album, to be called “The Girl with the Good Intentions,” inspired by such similar feelings to what I’ve experienced.)
The inadequacy I felt over not taking such a radical step contributed to the spiritual malaise that has marked much of my last 7-8 years. I felt frustrated, had trouble worshiping, and felt like I was all talk and no action. A “girl with good intentions,” indeed. Sometimes Matt asked me point-blank: “Do you feel called to move to Africa?” No, I didn’t, but that was beside the point, I thought. Maybe it wasn’t Africa, but surely we had to go somewhere hard, somewhere far from my comfortable, American, middle-class life.
About two years ago, in September 2010, I went on a silent retreat for a weekend. I’d been navigating the aforementioned spiritual malaise for several years by that point, and Matt and I were in a difficult place. Kate was a toddler then, and while she brought great joy, the stresses of living in Clarksville—a place where we never really “fit,” an hour away from my work and where we wanted to be—were great. I went on the retreat seeking peace, guidance, and personal revival.
I took a large sketchbook to serve as my journal for the weekend. Earlier in life, I’d spent hours drawing in my free time. I hadn’t done it in a while, and had been feeling the urge. The image in my mind that I was itching to get out was of Kate and me, several years into the future. She was sitting at the kitchen counter, doing homework and chatting with me while I made dinner—a replication of my mom and I from my own childhood. Visible in the scene are toys and a backpack on the floor, a decorative cross on the wall, and a family portrait on the shelf.
The spiritual director on this retreat encouraged us to reflect on Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
As I read those words, and doodled them in my sketchbook, I asked myself, “what are my burdens?”
“The mission,” I wrote first, thinking of this pressure I felt to serve the poor and change the world. My anger, pride, and other life frustrations were further down the list. Praying, as the spiritual director advised, for God to lighten the burdens we identified, I said, “God, take the mission.”
At that very moment—I kid you not—a breeze swept through the monastery courtyard where I was sitting, and whipped the page where I had listed these burdens up to reveal the sketch of my home and family on the next page. It was clear in that moment: my home is my mission field.
I certainly don’t mean that in a June Cleaver sort of way, like I could only serve God as a homemaker and should leave the world’s problems to the men, the single people, or the childless people. But it calmed my soul to realize that a) for this stage of my life at least, I had enough to handle without trying to solve global poverty, and b) I needed to start smaller. I was so burdened by the big picture, I was overlooking the ministry opportunities that I encountered every day.
This was a message I now realize I’d heard several times, but I was still so determinedly farsighted. It was even part of the bishop’s homily at our wedding! I tried to remind myself of this in a blog post I wrote on our anniversary four years ago. Bishop Pennel spoke on Joshua 24, like we asked (“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. . .”) but said we serve God by loving one another well. What a cop-out, I thought! But as I wrote four years ago:
“Loving one another well is a prerequisite for any other good we can do in the world. Why is that? Because unhappiness breeds self-centeredness. When the relationship is struggling and one or both parties is unhappy, we cannot get outside ourselves enough to focus on others and the service to which God calls us.”
I easily forget lessons I’ve learned, though, and this retreat revelation two years ago helped me be a little better to Matt, and lightened the heavy yoke I felt, but it still didn’t all come together.
This last winter/spring, my Lenten practice was to choose the Bible over the computer in the mornings and do some more reading and prayer-sketching. I am really not good with spiritual disciplines. I talk to God a lot, but I’m not good about sitting down and devoting specific time to devotions. I joke that I need to “give up Lent for Lent,” but I muddled through this time, seeking guidance from God regarding my continuing malaise. I began to wrestle more with my pride, my ambition, my need for affirmation, and I began to get a sense I was being prepared for something. I felt a sense of anticipation, and assumed that whatever I was being prepared for would become apparent very soon.
“Very soon” is relative, I guess, since I was very impatient and felt frustrated when Easter passed and summer came with no clear leading, and I forgot the feeling of preparation I’d had during my Lenten prayers. I see in retrospect that it wasn’t too long after that that foster care kept coming back to mind and I felt more of a tugging and leading to “act now,” as I described in my earlier post about this calling.
But I didn’t connect the two until just recently. There are so many things I can see in retrospect. I had the opportunity this past summer to travel abroad with a mission organization. I was very frustrated that it didn’t work out, but as it turned out, I would have missed our last week of PATH class (our foster-care training) had I gone on that trip. I could have made up the class, but the juxtaposition of missions far from and close to home was interesting. Looking further back, I had a couple other “coincidences” with foreign mission trips two years ago, and the overall picture being painted for me is a fascinating one. I think even the aforementioned retreat that was so significant to me coincided with another trip I ended up not taking.
Yes indeed, my mission is in my home. I joke that fostering makes sense because I’m lazy and introverted. Rather than leaving home to go to Africa, I’ll just bring the people in need to my own home! As the saying goes, “If Mohammed can’t go to the mountain, the mountain will come to him.” If I can’t go to the mission field, the mission field will come to me.
I’m very self-conscious in writing about all this, because I don’t want anyone else to feel that pressure I’d felt all these years. I do believe we are all called to care for people in need (as a biblical mandate and, really, just plain human decency) but how we do that varies. And if you’re called to do something specific, you’ll know. Don’t assume that just because someone else fosters—or moves to Africa!—that you should too.
A heart filled with peace and love is far more useful to God and people than one burdened by stress. Live your life. Love God. Love people. The rest will follow.