Room at Our Table

It was about a year ago that my husband, Andrew, and I decided to start hosting Sunday dinner parties at our house. Just writing this right now makes me laugh because we are such unlikely dinner party hosts. I’m a total introvert who avoids most social situations like the plague, we have three small, very loud children and we live in a house that’s about 1,600 square feet. Sounds like a really awesome place to have a nice dinner, right? I should also mention that my husband’s only day off is Sunday and it’s not unusual for him to work 10-12 hour days. He’s absolutely exhausted by Saturday evening. 
In spite of all this, we knew opening up our home was something we were supposed to be doing so we started inviting people to dinner and they just kept coming. We’ve hosted a neighborhood block party, cooked meals for multiple friends and coworkers, had barbecues and held a running men’s AA book study/dinner. This is our Sunday evening normal now and surprisingly, it has been so incredibly fruitful for our family. 


Our children have witnessed men both cuss and cry at our dining room table. They’ve learned to listen intently to adults and ask thoughtful questions. They’ve heard stories of addiction and faith, of sorrow and of hope. They’ve seen how sharing a simple meal with someone can break down walls and build beautiful, unlikely friendships. Our home is filled with new and old friends almost every Sunday evening now. Instead of draining us, these dinners somehow restore us. And what an incredible opportunity it has been to get glimpses into the lives of unlikely friends. Sometimes the conversation is casual, sometimes funny and a little inappropriate (I’m pretty sure my husband missed his calling as a comedian) and sometimes conversations lead to unexpected places. About a month ago we had once such dinner. Andrew’s coworker (who actually was a comedian once upon a time) and his family came over along with another couple they were friends with. We had only met the other couple briefly a few weeks before but they seemed awesome and they lived in our neighborhood so I was excited to get to know them better. Dinner conversation was hilarious as you can imagine and we enjoyed a simple meal on our patio in unseasonably cool weather for Texas in June. 


After dinner, Anna (one of our new friends) helped me clear the table. Our conversation turned to children and she told me of her desire to adopt. She spoke passionately about the number of older children in the Texas foster care system who are at a high risk of aging out and having no family to ever call their own. She shared with me their dream to open their home to foster teens with the hopes of adoption. We must have stood in my kitchen for half an hour talking about the broken system and how she longed to do something and then suddenly the light went out of her eyes. She stated quite plainly that none of this would happen for them here. I looked at her in disbelief as she began to tell me about a bill that had been approved and was expected to pass in the Texas Senate later in June. The bill, HB3859, would allow publicly funded foster care and adoption agencies in Texas to discriminate against applying foster families for a number of reasons that would conflict with their religious beliefs. See, our friends Anna and Joy are gay and this bill’s supporters are completely against placing children in the homes of same-sex couples. I was appalled and quite literally embarrassed for not even being aware of the legislation but Anna didn’t even blink at my ignorance. She told me they were planning on moving to the northeast in the next few years so they could start their family in a more welcoming state and how she was thankful they had the means to do this. “But,” she asked, “What about those who don’t?” 


It was getting late so we said our goodbyes and the last thing Anna said to me was, “Thank you guys for being so awesome.” I’m not sure why she said this. I certainly didn’t feel awesome. If I was awesome, I would have known about this completely unconstitutional bill. If I was awesome, I would have called my representative and told him what I thought about the blatant discrimination the bill would allow. If I was awesome I would have done something, anything. But I did nothing. And a few weeks later, the bill passed in the Senate and went on to be signed into law by Governor Abbott. 

This bill that not only allows state funded agencies to discriminate against families like Anna and Joy’s but also allows them to deny services to foster kids they disapprove of based on religious grounds (i.e. transgender, gay, atheist or non-Christian children) passed. Let me say that again. State funded agencies can now discriminate and refuse services to children based on religious grounds. 

And my heart breaks for them. 


So now what? In case you were wondering, my family and I are Christians but we don’t see anything Christ-like in protecting agencies over children or denying rights to others because they don’t share our beliefs. I tell Anna and Joy’s story because they are our friends, real people who are affected by this legislation. There’s nothing just in denying them the opportunity to be parents on the grounds that it would “violate the religious beliefs” of a group in power. I may have missed my opportunity to change a representative’s mind in June but my hope is that by sharing Anna and Joy’s story, we might at least gain a greater understanding of one another. And maybe, just maybe, we might even become advocates for each other.

So I encourage you to share a meal and your story with those around you, especially those you think are different from you, and listen and be heard. You may just learn something about another and about yourself. 

You can view House Bill 3859 here

To learn more about the disproportionately higher number of LBGTQ children in the foster care system, visit hrc.org

Immeasurably More

It’s a Monday morning in October, just over two years ago. My husband, Andrew, and I had just submitted the final paperwork to become licensed foster parents in the state of Texas the night before. We had been working with a wonderful agency in Austin for the past few months and though the process was tedious, the agency staff had navigated us through everything seamlessly. We had finally completed all the necessary steps and were ready to welcome children into our home. I remember being both excited and nervous to start this new adventure and I was certain our family would end up adopting from the foster care system. Not only that, but I had seen the children we would adopt; two precious, black, identical twin girls. I had envisioned their beautiful faces for almost a year and prayed for these children I didn’t even know yet. They filled my dreams, playing and laughing with our other children. It was all so vivid and clear to me – they were meant to be part of our family.


But as Andrew and I were getting ready to go to work that October morning, I suddenly had a strange feeling. What if I’m pregnant? Before we started the foster care journey, we had talked about conceiving a third baby but it wasn’t part of our plan anymore. We knew we couldn’t effectively care for a newborn, our two boys and fragile children being separated from their family and placed in a strange new environment. I couldn’t be pregnant, I thought. Or could I? I found an old pregnancy test under the sink and in 3 minutes my initial thoughts were confirmed. I was pregnant. What a strange feeling that was. I was incredibly happy but at the same time my heart longed for those two twin girls. But we knew fostering while bringing a new baby into this world would be too much for our family, so we called our agency and gave them the news. The day we made that call, we had no idea how tough the next year would be for our family.


We had our daughter, Storie, the following June. She was perfect in every way and we all fell madly in love with her. I left my job of ten years to stay home with our kids and began homeschooling the boys as well. We went from a family of four with two incomes to a family of five with one income. Needless to say it was a strain financially but it also took a lot of time for me to just adjust to my new role. Navigating homeschool curriculum with a newborn constantly attached to me was a little overwhelming and at times just plain lonely. If that wasn’t enough, about a month into our school year, Andrew lost his job and was faced with some pretty serious health issues. What was exposed through these tough experiences was that our relationship was extremely fragile and we needed to do something about that fast. We were forced to take a hard look at ourselves and our relationship and worked tirelessly reevaluating priorities, praying together and pushing through tough conversations to save the marriage that was so precious to us both.


That time in our lives seems like a lifetime ago. Last month Andrew had his one year anniversary with a new job that has been a financial blessing to our family, his health has never been better and our marriage, while certainly not perfect, has become a supremely sacred relationship we both treasure. The kids and I have also found our own unique way of homeschooling and have met so many wonderful friends along the way. I’m just amazed at how far we all have come.

My friend Susan was one of the people who walked through that difficult time with our family. She is one of my dearest friends but sadly last year, we just didn’t connect that much. She had a baby and was busy growing her non-profit, Austin Angels. I was busy homeschooling and just running our household. So when she asked me to meet her and the kids for a play date last week, I was so excited. While our kids played, we talked about our lives and how much they have changed in the last year. She filled me in on her hopes and dreams and for some reason I felt compelled to tell her about the twin girls I thought we were supposed to adopt. In the last three years, I had never told anyone about the girls except Andrew. I confessed to her that I still thought often about the girls and dreamed that they would be part of our family one day. As soon as I said this out loud, I was immediately embarrassed. It just sounded so silly to say it out loud. But then Susan said something I’ll never forget.


“I know those girls,” she said, “and they need you.”

See, a foster mom of two twin girls had applied a few months earlier to be part of a Love Box program through Austin Angels, Susan’s non-profit. Austin Angels helps facilitate Love Box teams that sponsor individual foster families to provide them with love, support and much needed supplies. It’s a beautiful program that helps care for families walking in the margins with extremely vulnerable children who often times have experienced neglect and abuse. The impact of a friend visiting regularly each month that cares about the children and is interested in what they are doing is incredible. I truly believe Love Box teams are changing the course of many foster kid’s lives.


Susan told me the twins’ foster mom had been put on a waiting list because she lived farther from Austin than most people were willing to drive. In addition to this, she was the girls’ mother’s godmother so she was not financially compensated for caring for the girls and she was struggling, really struggling, to make ends meet. At that moment I knew this was what God had been preparing my heart for. It all made sense now.


Less than a week later, I met the 9 month old twin girls. They were just as I had imagined them; gorgeous, black, twin girls. It was surreal. What’s more, I also met their incredibly brave and selfless foster mom, whose hope is that ultimately her goddaughter will one day be able to care for these precious girls. The foster mom is an absolute gift to the twins and I’m so grateful to be waking alongside her and witnessing the girls flourish the way God intended. I must admit this story doesn’t look quite like I imagined but I have a feeling it’s going to be so much better.

And these words my husband and I clung to desperately two years ago just continue to astound us:

Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

Immeasurably more friends.

A Minimalist Christmas

First off I should give credit to my dear friend Jaclyn for inspiring this post. She recently interviewed me on the topic of slowing down during the busy holiday season on her podcast, Mountains Are for Moving. On it I share a few ways our family is intentional about our time, our giving and our purchases and several moms I look up to share what works for them as well. If you are looking to connect better with your family and bring meaning to your holiday season, check it out at mountainsareformoving.com or search Mountains are for Moving on your podcast app. 


The holiday season is so busy, isn’t it? I have always just accepted that as how it should be. There are parties, festivals, light shows, shopping, Santa visits, the list goes on. I myself have a natural tendency to over schedule our lives. At the start of the school year I tried to keep our schedule light and simple but bit by bit, other activities creep in. I decided to reevaluate in early November what I wanted our days to look like going into the holiday season.  
So what does it mean to slow down? For starters, since we homeschool, this means cutting out some of our work and saying no to extra activities. My oldest, who is seven, still begins his day with math, a handwriting exercise and guitar practice but that’s about it for formal school work. During this time, my four year old also works on his handwriting and spelling (only when he is interested in it) and an activity of his choosing. The rest of our time is spent reading together, listening to music, baking, crafting and discussing the season. And as always, we get outside as much as weather allows, which is quite often in Central Texas. Here are some of our favorite ways to enjoy time with each other during the holidays:


Books

The single greatest way to share the message of the holiday season is through stories. Reading aloud has been such a gift for my children and me but finding the right books with a good message and ones that spark their interest can sometimes be a challenge. It is also very important to me that my children are aware that while we celebrate Christmas as Christians, there are other holidays and traditions celebrated by our friends and neighbors and that diversity in our culture is beautiful. Here is what we are currently reading:


The Family Read-Aloud Christmas Treasury

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

The Legend of the Poinsettia

Together at Christmas

The Story of Hanukkah 

Room for a Little One

The Nutcracker

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

Together for Kwanzaa

Advent readings from the Bible 


Giving

I’ll be honest and say that giving has not been an area where we have spent a lot of effort this year, simply because my husband and I have not made it important. But it’s so important. Our resolve in 2017 is to give more; more of our money, more of our time and more of our lives. And tuning our children’s hearts to give is in turn a beautiful gift to our world. What is so amazing is that kids love to give and it comes quite naturally to them. Children have an uncanny ability to see without filters and prejudices that allows them to extend grace and mercy to anyone if given the space to do so. I also believe it’s important for our children to see their parents model a giving heart by donating money and time or simply inviting someone into our home for a meal. 


Here are some things we have done as a family in the past or will be doing this holiday season:

  • Donating food to a food bank – its fun to check your local food bank’s website for needed items and have the kids make a grocery list to shop for and then deliver the food. Many food banks also give tours of their warehouses which is super fun for the kids. 
  • Baking cookies for neighbors, police and firefighters, and various local ministries. 
  • Making bags filled with small toiletries and snacks to hand out to the homeless men and women we see when we’re out
  • Donating to Blue Santa, which is a great local organization that provides needy families in Austin with a holiday meal and presents for children. We have not worked with this organization yet but are hoping to participate this year. 
  • Filling and sending shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. 
  • Connecting with a foster family to help with holiday needs. We do this year round through Austin Angels but the holiday season is such a special time to start. 
  • Visiting a local nursing home.  


Creating

My boys love working with their hands so we spend a lot of time creating and crafting. All of the gifts we will give as a family this year are homemade with the exception of a few books. If you know my family, we spend a lot of time outdoors so naturally many of our crafts use pieces of nature we’ve collected. We also participate in a Nature Pal Exchange which has inspired many of our projects. Currently we are working on ornaments made from branches and acorns found on our hikes and rolling beeswax candles. Next week we will be making bookmarks by laminating foraged leaves and hand painting Christmas cards. It always amazes me how simple crafts can engage my energetic boys and keep them at the table. There’s also something to be said in making a gift rather than just purchasing one off a shelf. 

Baking is a huge hit in our house as well. I’ll admit, I haven’t always enjoyed having my boys help in the kitchen. They’re loud and messy and always spilling something but I’ve found when I just let my issues with mess go, I actually have a lot of fun baking with them and they so enjoy it as well. We really enjoy baking things from scratch but that being said, I always choose simple recipes without a lot of steps, simply for my own sanity. 


Many of our holiday recipes and crafts, along with our Advent readings have come from a book by called Slow and Sacred Advent by Jennifer Naraki. I highly recommend it if you are wanting to slow down and celebrate Christmas more purposely and with intention. It has been such a blessing to us this holiday season. 


A few final thoughts…

We can do more with less. Less gifts, less decorations, less comparison, less stuff. We are bombarded with excess everywhere. It’s hard to avoid but it’s not impossible. All we have to do is turn off the TV, put down the phone and open up a book with our kids. Hope you all have a wonderful holiday filled with lots of memories your children will cherish for a lifetime.