Monday, June 19, 2017

Summer Camp and Upworthy Videos

Last week, we loaded up in our sweet new 15-passenger van (and a few more vehicles obviously) and took 38 kids to Camp Grace. We could not even handle that 14 hour bus ride after last year's ridiculousness at KAA (not their fault, totally our kiddos acting foolishly). Anyways, we had a few (ok quite a few) incidents involving kiddos running away and therefore spending a little extra time with their ministry leaders (aka us). Additionally, we brought one kiddo home with a black eye as the result of a fist-fight in the back of the fancy new van on the car ride home. Despite all that, however, we would call our week a success. For those of you who have been around The Stanley Clan since the beginning, you know how deeply we love camp and what a big part of our story it has been (and continues to be).
If you want something else that might blow your mind, this year Jayci was old enough to be an actual camper, like spent the week in a cabin. Which was bizarre since our first summer at Camp Grace, Jayci wasn't even the beginning of a dream. She has spent nearly every summer of her life at camp, and this was her first time being on the camper-side of things. She obviously killed it and loved it and wishes she could go back immediately. 
We also brought a few of our older boys (and one girl) as CITs (counselors-in-training), and they were amazing. Not that we doubted they would be, but it's always fun to watch kiddos step into the shoes they were made to fill and lead and love the younger kiddos from their own neighborhood with grace and patience and the occasional curse-word, which we aim mostly to pretend we don't hear. 
Caden and Isaiah were in our cabin, along with our amazing friends/Blueprint team members and their 3 even-littler boys. I liked to declare, quite frequently and loudly, that our cabin was clearly the hardest to properly control and keep quiet (never happened). Oh well, at least they're cute.
All that to say, camp was a winner. And we came home for two whole days before we hopped on a plane and headed to Boston/Maine/New Hampshire for a getaway without 40 kids. Turns out our three are more than enough to keep us busy, but that's another post for another day. 
While we were wrangling our kids onto an airplane, I got an email saying that our Upworthy video aired on Facebook. I cannot figure out if it's anywhere on the inter-webs that people sans Facebook can see, so my apologies for that. But my mind has been completely blown by the kind encouragement and feedback that everyone has given us over our debut. I think we can all agree, however, that Ashton is the real star of this video. Not only is he the best ever, but he's taking care of our annoying dog while we are out of town, so he wins even more most-amazing-guy-ever points for that (not that he needs any extra points). We continue to maintain our position that we are the lucky ones in this whole equation, and that we are big fans of our life. I also continue to maintain that staying away from comment sections is always the best policy. 

(Here's the link to our video on FB, in case you can't see it on the blog!) 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Time hop

Surely I’m not the only one who wishes I could go back in time, just a little. To the moments when faith came easy, when Jayci was small enough to cuddle her tiny frame entirely in my lap. When our life and hope and marriage and beliefs were all less complicated. When good and evil, and following Jesus felt simple and straightforward. When I knew just enough about parenting to think I knew at least a little bit. Instead, life gets lived out in shades of gray in neighborhoods that gentrify while we all remain mired in generational ideals of success, and hopelessness gets lived out in never-ending loops in front of our eyes.
The last week has been a frenzy as I try to juggle the full-time jobs of parenting during the summer and collecting camp forms for over thirty five kids. I’ve never been very adept at juggling, and the whole thing threatens to topple a few times on the precarious edge of my frustration and the kids boredom (already!?).  Next week, we leave for camp in the new 15 passenger van we bought (because we have never been cooler). I keep asking Adam for reassurance, it can’t be worse than last year right? For those of you who weren’t around, just know that last year approximately 20% of the kids we brought got kicked out of camp for various behavior infractions ranging from running away to trying to stab his counselor. This year, we decided not to bring any older kids (who gave us the most trouble) so we have a gaggle of excited 8-10 year olds mostly who pepper our door with knocks and questions about packing and departure times and requests for snacks.
Parenting Jayci has been a struggle the last few months, and as she grows in her understanding of specific issues facing our neighborhood, the pressure to both help her understand and extend grace seems heavier perhaps than I know how to carry.  Caden is joyful and exuberant, which extends fully to the amount and demonstration of “love” he shows his younger and older siblings, both of whom grow quickly frustrated with him. Breaking up fights is a full-time job in and of itself around here. In just a few minutes, I will leave to take Caden for his (routine) cardiologist visit, and I feel less anxious than I usually do for these meetings. Caden goes full-throttle most days and I would be shocked if they found anything wrong. Zay Zay is nearly two years old, and alternates between wildly independent and willfully defiant, with a dash of clingy-ness for those days when I really need to get things done.
If you followed along on my instagram or via Facebook, you saw that I did Whole 30 in the month of May. Truth be told, we made it about 25 days before we threw in the towel, mostly because we had a kid-free weekend full of date nights, but also because I was frustrated by following the program religiously without losing a single pound of this pesky extra weight that seems to love hanging around my midsection in particular. I guess, however, that my metabolism has just realized I am not quite as young anymore, and I will need to move my body and fill it with boring healthy food (eye roll). Whatever.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m feeling extra complain-y today. Life is actually just normal, ordinary and brimming with the fullness of life with three small children and a busy neighborhood and ministry. We raise money (never enough), buy bigger vans, and host dinners in the backyard. It’s just I can’t quite shake this sneaking suspicion that it’s these very ordinary tasks that I am least equipped for. The setting aside of time for each child, the picking up of clutter and washing of laundry and dishes. The shepherding of hearts and the relentless task of teaching the boys to throw their trash in the actual trash can.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Lament for Mother's Day

For some of us, Lord, mother’s day is the day when our pain breaks all-the-way-through. Because all of us have found ourselves facing brokenness this day. Some of us long for nothing more than a child to fill our arms. Some of us have walked the lonely weary road of miscarriage. Some of our babies are sick, and some of us have even faced the unfathomable pain of burying a child. Some of us mothers, we wonder if perhaps we aren’t quite up for the task before us. We snapped this morning at our sweet little ones, and we feel the ever-present guilt and shame of never answering with quite enough patience or correcting with just the right balance of mercy and justice.

Some of us, Lord, have walked through hurt as daughters or sons to mothers who aren’t here to celebrate with us today. Perhaps they are across the country, or perhaps they have gone home to you. Some of us had mothers who tore us down when we needed to be built up, who couldn’t be all the things we needed them to be.

We have lost much, Lord, and we ache with the weight of the losing. And yet, Lord, we do not find ourselves landing forever in our loss today. Yes we grieve, but not as those without hope. Your grace lavishes on a day that bustles and rubs, because sometimes motherhood looks nothing like we imagined.

You offer hope and unending grace for those who have more children than they imagined or hoped for, and the ones who ache to hold a baby in their arms. The ones whom motherhood was foisted upon, and the ones aren’t really sure they even want the title. The one who has lost, and the one who every month swells in hope and anticipation, only to find herself wondering if there’s a God who always picks someone else.
And so we will come together Father and meet you at the altar, we commit ourselves to the holy act of mothering one another. We will worship you by loving our children, by serving our own aging mothers, by caring for our adult children, and by loving deeply kids who are not related by blood.

It is a sacrificial offering, Father, for us to say “if not, you are still good.” For us to rest in the truth of your grace and hope even if our longings are never fulfilled. Even if we will never be the mother we long to be, and even if we never have the mother we deserve. Even if we have no children to swell our hearts and bellies. Even if we have lost more than seems right or fair, we choose today to trust in your goodness and love.

Lord some of us find ourselves this morning wrung all the way out by motherhood, in one way another. We have given everything we have to give and more, we are weary and shaky with the effort, at the end of our abilities and patience and hope. Remind us this morning that the very place we find you most intimately is at the end of ourselves. So let us come, today, to the end of ourselves. To the very end of our longings and dreams and fears and grief, of our pain and our hopelessness and expectations. And right there at the end of ourselves, Lord, help us to find you in brand new ways.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Pre-existing Conditions

Unless you have been living under a rock (or avoiding social media), you have likely seen the clip of Jimmy Kimmel speaking emotionally of the birth and subsequent heart surgery of his new baby boy. Kimmel’s story lands for me with gut-wrenching familiarity. Nearly six years ago, my son (Caden) wrestled his way into the world with severe congenital heart defects, which we knew nothing about prior to his birth. Our story unfolded exactly as Jimmy describes: the careful nurse who saved his son’s life; the fear and emotion that lodges in the throat; the image of his baby with wires and tubes and a bandage engulfing tiny chest; the long list of people who carried them, quite literally, through the whole ordeal; the murmur we assumed was nothing, but ended up being something serious enough to warrant immediate open heart surgery; the happy ending that doesn’t preclude the tears. Watching his monologue, I can almost smell the antiseptic soap, finding myself immediately transported to our hearts torn open and mended by exhausting days and sleepless nights spent slumped in hospital chairs, the hardest and holiest road we have ever walked. After four excruciating weeks in the cardiac unit, Caden finally came home from the hospital with a feeding tube and a pre-existing condition, one we knew nothing about until it existed.
Two days before Caden's birth, we closed on our house in an Atlanta neighborhood where laughter and beauty were often punctuated by sirens, to start a non-profit fostering mentoring relationships with youth in the community. Since that day, five teenagers have spent time living with our family when they needed a safe place to land. Young men who helped rock Caden to sleep and politely sipped “tea” from pink plastic cups while watching my daughter host extravagant ballet demonstrations, who pushed our buttons and ate all our food, but each of whom profoundly changed our family for the better. Today, my newsfeed alternates Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional monologue with another familiar face, this one belonging to fifteen year old Jordan Edwards who was shot and killed by a police officer while leaving a party in a Dallas suburb this past Saturday night.

Jordan Edward’s pre-existing condition was that he was born with brown skin. I stare at his face, noticing his warm grin with lips closed over his teeth, the way he has carefully buttoned the top button on his bright turquoise polo shirt. He reminds me achingly of the boys who sit around our table for dinner, the ones who dribble and dunk basketballs endlessly in our backyard, and patiently play game after game of UNO with Caden who only has a tenuous grasp of the rules. I am finally coming to understand, as my neighbors have always known, that there can be no insurance for Jordan’s skin color, no assurance that the world around him and even those sworn to protect him wouldn’t deem him a threat and end his life too soon.

After Caden’s birth and heart surgery in 2011, he was immediately eligible for denial by healthcare companies, due to his “pre-existing condition.” Before 2016, when he had his second open-heart surgery, this law was changed under Obama, meaning we couldn’t be denied coverage because of his heart defect. Last week, however, the House approved Trump’s plan to dismantle much of the Affordable Care Act, including the part prohibiting insurance providers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

The thing about pre-existing conditions is that you can do all the things you are supposed to do in order to avoid them. You can be a good person. You can take prenatal vitamins and drink lots of water, and avoid the siren call of Diet Coke for nine long months. You do everything right, and still your son can be born with a broken heart. You do all the things they say you should do: get straight A's and pull up your pants and button up your crisp polo shirt, play sports brilliantly and leave the party when things get too crazy. You can do everything right and still you live in the condition of your skin tone and end up with a bullet in your head.

After Caden’s birth and surgery, people told me “you’re so brave, I couldn’t do it.

Yes you could,” I would always answer with a shrug, “when it’s your child, you just do what you have to do.” Caden wouldn’t survive leaving his heart how it was, he would not have lived through our doing nothing. Likewise, it becomes increasingly clear that we can no longer survive doing nothing. When sons die and their brothers have nightmares about the hole in his head, when our sisters can’t afford healthcare, when rape is a pre-existing condition: we all need a whole new heartbeat. And that will begin, mostly, with a more communal understanding of our nation’s children as our own. Because when the chocolate close-toothed grin represents our child just as surely as the baby in the hospital bed, we will not be content to leave things the way they are.
Fixing Caden's broken heart required open heart surgery, a re-plumbing of valves and careful stitching of holes that left him with a jagged scar and a unique heartbeat. Fixing the system that calls blackness a preexisting condition in the first place will require cracking open our chests and replumbing our hearts, along with the programs and systems that have been built on the false idea that we will be able to avoid the collective cost of devaluing life.

This discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions reveals something about our own hearts, about the ways we assume our safety and longevity, and the ways we carefully avoid the things that remind us otherwise. When we are unfamiliar with stories like Jordan’s, when his face doesn’t ring bells of empathy in our hearts the way that Kimmel’s son’s does, then we turn away instead of towards. Because truthfully, even when coverage couldn’t be denied for pre-existing conditions, we sure knew how to make it entirely too expensive to protect the lives of those born with them. And it is costing all of us much much more than we have to give. Our very humanity is threatened by the steep price of innocent lives lost and hearts growing still and hard while the world bustles by unaware.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When There is Still Hope

So I wrote these words originally in 2013. But I cannot think of anything I need this morning more than this reminder. That there is, in fact, still hope. Even on our darkest and most disappointing days. Hope wins (even though now the statistic would be zero-in-five-of-our-kiddos-has-never-been-arrested).

Maybe one of you needs this reminder today too: 

I tease his tiny fingers until they curl around mine, tracing the freckles dotting his upper lip and chin with my fingertips while his eyes flutter into sleep. And tears drip off my own chin unchecked. His sixteen-year-old momma watches Pitch Perfect in the other room, and this baby unhinges me into the conviction that it is all just too much.

Six years ago, we got to know 5 ten and eleven year olds. They fight and tease and wrestle like siblings, quick to argue and quicker to stand up for each other: growing up in the projects together will do that to you, I suppose, solidifying community and family in mysteriously beautiful and unexpected ways. We have watched these five lengthen from all-knobby-knees-and-gap-teeth into teenagers who look more adult than child. And of the five, three are not just teenagers enmeshed in high-school drama, but mom or dad. Only two are still in high school at all, and one of those two at an alternative school. There is only one of the group who has never been arrested. And the odds stack ever-higher against them.

I finish reading Grady Baby, and flip back to the front to see when it was published. 1999. I wonder, even before I can stop myself, how many of the babies from the book find themselves, fourteen years later, back at Grady to deliver their own babies.

Sometimes cynicism mounts; the weight and pressure building until it all feels hopeless, not to mention entirely-too-hard. If you’re not growing your ministry, if you don’t have measurable results, you’re dying. He smiles at me after telling me this, and I smile back bravely, sure he can see the waver beneath. Because I look at our “results” and I’m not sure we have anything we should tell potential donors. I can talk all day and climb up on my soapbox about stopping the cycle and helping the kids and fighting for their futures. But things in the trenches look different than they do from the air.
The window on the door has been shattered when we walk up to the neighborhood high school. After discussing whether we should just reach through and open the door ourselves, we buzz ourselves in and wait patiently for a reply. When we tell the lady in the front office we’d like to volunteer, she wrinkles her nose and look confused while rifling through files to see if they even have a volunteer form of some sort. No one has ever done this before she offers by way of explanation. So we file tardy slips and shuffle tenth grade files back to the ninth grade drawer, and pull folders out for kids who have moved or dropped out. And it’s not glamorous, and perhaps even a little futile. But we show up anyways.
Yesterday during play-time, Jayci managed to dump out every single solitary card game we own (which, by the way, is a very large number of card games), and mix them together into a giant mountain of cards that were impressively thoroughly shuffled together. I walked in to find her sheepish. She tells me she accidentally made a big mess. I contemplated just shoving them all back in the baskets as they are, pretending it never happened and just pulling out cards when we need them. Finally, I sigh loudly, and perhaps a little dramatically. I yell for Adam; together, the three of us sat cross-legged on Jayci’s floor for nearly two hours sorting out cards. Occasionally, Caden is distracted from the play kitchen where he cooks “hot gogs,” and runs over to mix up our piles a little, to all of our chagrin and loud protests.

Putting cards in the right boxes, shuffling file-folders into alphabetical order, feels both strangely satisfying and smacks of futility. Because some of these kids wont show up for school tomorrow. And chances are better-than-good that Caden or Jayci, or both of them in a show of mischievous solidarity, will dump out all the cards again. And I’m not sitting here writing because I have this all figured out. I certainly don’t have an answer, or some wisdom to share with you. I write because I need to process why-DO-we-keep-showing-up? To process why we keep shuffling and sorting and reaching down into the grittiness of it all.
Sun streams through the windows as I wipe tears from my cheek and chin and gently wrap him in a blanket, burrito-style, just like we did with Jayci and Caden. Then I join his momma in the other room to watch Pitch Perfect, and can’t help myself from singing along. I jiggle him a little until his blinks lengthen, long lashes resting on his cheek and wrinkles smoothing from his forehead. He relaxes into sleep and I hold him close, ignoring my mile-long-to-do-list. On the drive back to their house, she tells me about the “other white lady from church,” (not my church, I don’t know her as it turns out) who helps their family and bought her sister a car. Through tears, she tells me how when church-lady (her words, not mine) met her son, and realized she had decided to keep him instead of giving him up for adoption, she said: congratulations, you flushed his life down the toilet.

We pull up to a red light, and I fight back my own tears, laying my hand on her arm. You know that’s not true right? I ask her. She shrugs. And I remind her that God doesn’t make mistakes. That despite the odds, and although raising her son will not be easy, THERE IS STILL HOPE. Because I have to believe that is true. I have to. Or else I might as well stop showing up. I have to believe that Jesus cares far more about us standing in the right place than He does about us being right. He would rather me stand with this precious young momma than stand and accuse her. Because I have to believe that the shame of this deep-seeded-belief, that her own life is worth-less, is exactly what led her to stare down the barrel of a life she declared again and again she didn't want for herself, and pull the trigger. To sleep with him, to have a baby, to step right into the cycle she has fought against for sixteen years.

And so we measure our success not with statistics or growth charts, but with love. And we hold our ground, refusing to be moved by what the world tells us we should be doing. Even when we trip over disappointment and set-backs, we regain our footing in the sure and ever-present promise of hope in Jesus. Because the darkness will not win, and success neither belongs to us nor can be measured by us anyways. Don’t we follow and chase after a God who delights in turning things on their head anyways? Where the first are last, and to find your life you lose it? We hold our ground, standing in solidarity with our neighbors, in an unexpected and beautiful kinship with those around us.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe we should care more about outcomes and statistics and RESULTS. There are certainly not any grant-givers or funders breaking down our door to offer us money for our “one-in-five-of-our-kiddos-has-never-been-arrested.” But I am holding-fast, nevertheless, to my belief in the slow work of a patient God who doesn’t give up on us. Who watches and waits for the prodigal to return, and then lifts His robes and runs to him when he takes the first steps towards home. We will believe in our kiddos until they believe in themselves. And in the solidarity and kinship of linking ourselves to them forever, regardless of decisions or outcomes, we open ourselves up to hurt and disappointment. But we also open ourselves to the beautiful heartbeat of hope and to the realization and we belong to each other. And we can finally believe the words of Jeremiah when he says “In this place of which you say it is a waste . . . there will be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness . . . the voices of those who sing.”

Monday, April 17, 2017

An Easter Prayer of Confession

Dearest heavenly Father,

Even as we celebrate your risen Son this very morning, our hearts are already turning to forgetfulness and doubt. We stare with widened eyes into an empty tomb, and yet we choose death over the resurrection life you offer us. The angel asked the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And so we ask our own hearts the same question. We confess that we are searching for life in places that only offer death. We cling to our selfish ways, to our idols and strongholds, holding tight to our sins even as we stumble beneath their great weight.

We confess that it all seems too heavy, too much to bear. The weight of the world, of the hurt, and the pain, and the sickness, and the loss. We stumble beneath all we have piled high on our own shoulders; and yet the only thing you have asked us to carry is our cross. You urge us gently to leave our sins in their tomb; and we ignore your beckonings. Paul's words are familiar to us: because we too do the very things we don’t want to do. We speak harshly, when a gentle word is required. We judge, we compare, we covet, we slander, we idolize.
 And even still, you sent your beloved Son to die for us. To sweat drops of blood and defeat death so we might share in His communion with the Father. To tenderly take our hearts in his hands and cover us in his grace, calling us righteous, even when we are decidedly not. We confess that we are unworthy of your forgiveness, and we thank you Lord that today we don't have to be worthy, because Jesus was.

Lord, remind our hearts this Easter morning that resurrection is here. We want to live in the reality that you have defeated all the darkness. When we doubt, like Thomas, you enter through all our locked doors and invite us to touch the very places you were broken for us. You invite us to put our hands into your wounds, right into holes - the broken holy places that prove not your death but your victory over it. So we pray that this Easter, and every day from here on out, we will live in the freedom you offer us. We praise you because you have defeated death, and because you extend to us the holy and undeserved privilege of living resurrection life forever.

Amen

When you were dead in your sins… God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands; He took it away, nailing it to the cross. - Colossians 2:13-14

Monday, April 10, 2017

When we went to the beach and the world is crazy

I'm going to be honest with you all right now. I'm not sure what I'm doing with this blog these days. I mean, does anyone read blogs anymore? Does anyone write blogs anymore? We are having a bit of an existential crisis, me and the blog.

I do, however, understand that my family (hi grandma!) and also possibly our supporters check the blog regularly. So my apologies for the lapse, though I can't promise it won't happen again.
Last week was spring break, and we went to the beach. How boring and normal, and decidedly not-blog-worthy. After all, nearly the entirety of Atlanta also apparently went to this same beach last week. One day, in fact, we found ourselves sitting on the beach next to a couple who happened to have graduated from the same high school as we did. What a weirdly small world.

We managed to hit our family stride in the second half of the glorious week at the beach. In fact, I think there was one entire day when our older two children didn't even fight. A minor miracle, at the very least. If you must know, though, Isaiah was entirely too clingy all week. I still might unabashedly call this our best family vacation yet. I managed to read four books (I highly recommend this one, please read it immediately); however, I'm not sure if I've mentioned that speed reading is my best life-skill.

The very last day of vacation, our children rode their bikes without complaining for over seven miles. Isaiah napped quietly in the trailer behind Adam's bike and the wind lapped quietly at our heels while the sun poured over onto our shoulders. We spent a few hours at the beach, and then I read on the screened porch while Isaiah napped and we ate dinner and played cards together with nary an unkind word.

The same day we danced on the beach and rode bikes in the sun, Trump ordered an airstrike on Syria in response to the chemical attacks. My dailySkimm the next morning told me about terrorist attacks in Oslo. And today I read about another elementary school shooting, and attacks on Palm Sunday services in Egypt. And it all feels too much, right? Like too heavy a burden to carry alongside twirling daughters and a son who clasps your legs and sobs to be help when all you want to do is read just one more chapter of your book.
I am weighed by the guilt of enjoying the privilege of a trip to the beach. I can't figure out the best way to find my footing in either place of outrage or ignorant bliss, and it turns out that in-between is a lonely place to live. How can I be a mother who delights in the joy of my own children, while also holding space for the reality of how deeply suffering enfolds so many other children all over the globe? How do we parent and live from a place of rootedness in peace and joy, without simply turning a blind eye to the darkest corners of our world and neighborhoods?

Palm Sunday is past, Christ's triumphant entry to shouts of Hosanna and waving branches have only led us ever-closer to the cross. To the dark reality of death and loss, and to a grave that stayed silent for longer than we hoped. This week of anticipation feels fraught with a chasm between the privilege of space I don't take for granted, and the weight of a world that spins ever-closer to something darker than I can bear.
Thousands of years ago marks a day swathed in darkness, and a body racked by pain. Real pain and real darkness. Broken by thorns and vinegar in a wound. And sometimes we still live in this darkness, in the remembering that we needed blood to cover all this sin. But I also remember and hold close, this week especially, the hope that rings like a tolling bell in the not-too-distant future. Because yes the death of Good Friday looms ominous with darkness, but we do not live without hope. Because we know that resurrection is coming, and that the one who defeats all the darkness doesn't tell Thomas, when he doubts, to touch his wholeness but his brokenness. To put his hands into wounds, right into holes - the broken holy places that prove not his death but his victory over it. So we put our hands into the wounds, elbow deep in the blood and pain, because we know the brokenness will be redeemed. Life will be restored. We know that Sunday is coming. 

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