A special gift...

I've received some pretty awesome gifts in my lifetime!  In fact, if you've read the archives of this blog, you know that my Ellie was one of them!  That sweet surprise from my hubby would be hard to beat, but this year's gift from my son Ryan would be a close second!  Watch and I think you'll understand why!

Celebrating Hope...

Celebrating the birth of Christ was a beautiful way to end this year so filled with hope!  This Christmas season was a special one for so many reasons!  Most special was the sweet reminder through the adoption of our Rachel Hope this year, that without Christ' coming, we would all be lost... forever orphaned and alone... without hope!  But in Him, we are loved, fully accepted, adopted into His forever family, and filled to overflowing with immeasurable HOPE!  That is worth celebrating!... Come, let us adore Him with our lives!

This girl is crazy about her Daddy!

Our family, together Christmas Eve...

On December 17th, the entire Dance Ministry of Ms. Felicia Roden (including our Kate and Ellie) performed The Nutcracker at the University of North Florida to benefit orphans around the world and some critically ill children from the Jacksonville area.  This year, Rachel was chosen as one of the beneficiaries of their beautiful performance!  Since the moment Rachel arrived home from China in September, Ms Felicia, her team, and the dancers, have overwhelmed us with their love, support, and prayers...  Now, thousands of dollars have been raised in order to help our family with the medical expenses for the healing of Rachel's heart.  We are overwhelmed by God's goodness to us through these wonderful people and look forward to next year's performance, when our Rachel will be among the dancers to help another child who needs hope too!

Rachel LOVES Gran!
She drove all the way from North Carolina to be here in time for tonight!

There's our beautiful Ellie in pink on the far left and sweet Kate in the middle in blue!
What an incredible job they did performing!  We were so proud!

There was even a "surprise visitor" to present gifts to the honored guests of the evening!

Another blessing this year was our arrival home from an unexpected visit to the ICU at Shands Hospital in Gainesville just in time to attend The Nutcracker and celebrate Rachel's first Christmas at HOME!  We had a few scary nights with Rachel's oxygen levels dipping into the 50s, and a single ventricle that seems to be weakening, but thanks be to God, the new meds are working wonders and she was back to her happy, peppy self just in time to celebrate Jesus!  Many people enjoy Christmas most when seen through the eyes of a child.  But when seen through the eyes of a 7 year old who before now, knew nothing of Christ, or the hope His birth brought to her broken, orphaned heart...  there just aren't words to describe it!  Never before have I enjoyed a "front row seat" to such miracles as I have in the past several months and it gave Christmas new meaning to all of us so blessed to witness it!  I will treasure these memories for many years to come, as will all of those that have come to know and love our precious Rachel!
A Nintendo DS for Rachel!

...and one for Kate! 
...and sweet Ellie too!

I think she likes it!!!

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that three special princesses would find them there!


May the joy of "God with us" fill your hearts with hope this Christmas season and through out the next year!

Good News!...

     ...Not too much of that floating around here lately!  Quite the contrary!  I've spent the last three days with Rachel in the pediatric ICU at Shands, two hours from home.  And though I am more prepared for Christmas than I ever remember being before,  I didn't plan on spending these days inside the four walls of a hospital room.  I should have seen it coming!  You didn't need a medical degree to know that Rachel's heart condition was worsening...  Her lips were a permanent shade of purple-blue and her energy levels seemed to decrease on a daily basis.  Her appetite was almost non-existant (a problem I could afford to have!) and the swelling around her eyes every morning made the truth painfully obvious.     
     Rachel's cardiologist started talking about completing her second open heart surgery many months before we had originally planned.  After much discussion as a family, I returned to her regular appointment with Dr Fricker last Friday and told him that we were ready to put it on the schedule for right after the holidays.  It's hard to watch Rachel struggle so much to live a life with some measure of 7 year old "normalcy".  At first glance, Dr Fricker agreed.  He believed that her set backs were issues related to the Glenn Procedure completed just 8 weeks ago and the only solution was to finish the process they had begun with a Fontan.  Sadly, her echo-cardiagram revealed a sudden weakness in her single left ventricle.  7 years of carrying the heart's work load alone has obviously taken it's toll on it.   But this was a huge surprise since that ventricle had proven to be the strongest, most "reliable" part of her very broken heart.  No one can explain why it suddenly chose to start sleeping on the job!  The Bad News???  Surgery #2 can not be completed without full cooperation from that ventricle and for the first time since beginning this process, we are facing the reality that the only solution for Rachel may be a heart transplant.  

     So here we are... trying new drugs, adjusting the levels of those drugs and trying to determine if the sudden weakness in the left ventricle can be reversed to usefulness again.  Gratefully, amidst the bad news of the week, is a glimmer of good...  Those drugs have done absolute wonders for Rachel's oxygen levels!  That means that sweet energy and a zest for life have returned to our precious angel...  This thrills me for her, but it has served as a massive test of my ability to entertain a very happy, suddenly active, 7 year old girl in the PICU for 4 days!  Whatever you need to teach me through this, Lord, please do it now, because this is an exercise I'd most like to avoid re-doing!  :-)

It appears we have a Dr. in the making!!

     But, lest I feel sorry for myself over our sudden, unexpected "bad news",  I need not look too far within the ICU to find others choking down far worse news than I've had to stomach this week!  Two families have been here with infants barely hanging onto life for over 4 months, waiting for hearts to become available for life-saving transplants.  It struck me, in thinking about it, that what would be such wonderful, life-giving news for these families in the gift of a donated heart, would be the worst of "bad news" for another.  One family would lose the life of a beloved son or daughter so that another parent's child could live.  I am suddenly, keenly aware that Doug and I may well find ourselves in that very position in the months ahead...  Bad news for one... very good news for another!  
The color of those lips makes me smile too!

     My 24 year old son has been teaching his youth group this Christmas season on the subject of "good news".  In light of all that is going on in our lives these days, his teaching led me to think longer and harder on the subject than I ever have before.  
     When the angels appeared to the shepherds in the wee hours of that first Christmas morning, they proclaimed that they were bearers of "Good News" for all people.  Nothing new to me... I've heard that story so many times, I stopped really "hearing" many, many years ago!  Why would you begin such a proclamation with the four words... "Do not be afraid"?  If this is really such "good news", why would we be afraid??   It's the bad news I'm scared of!!  I welcome the "good" kind!  But Russ helped me understand... the people of that time (namely the Jews) had an incredible fear of God.  They knew the law too well to think that they could ever measure up to the standards God had set for His people.  The Law was explicit in detailing the perfection God required to please Him.  Any sign of God suddenly showing up on the scene would likely have sent most of them into a tail spin...  They were failures at law-keeping and knew that if they got what they deserved, the only kind of news heavenly angels might bring would likely be "bad news" indeed!  Instead the angels had arrived with the best news their broken hearts had ever heard.  "Don't be afraid... we bring Good News of great joy!  Tonight your Savior has been born!"  And suddenly, in that moment, the worst of the worst bad news had been transformed into something wonderfully good instead...  A savior had been born who would trump all bad with ultimate "good"!  
     In effect, the news of that glorious first Christmas was this....  You've blown it folks!  You will never measure up to God's holy standard!  Without a savior, there is nothing but bad news for each and every one of you!  BUT... this is different... the angels delivered "good tidings of great joy"!  Most obviously, the only proper response to such great news is an equally great JOY!... duh...  
     Where have I been all these years?  I guess I got sucked up into the Santa movement that is sadly alive and well in the American church...  I remember growing up in my Baptist church attending the Christmas Eve service every single year.  At the end, some sweet old gentleman would announce that the local radio station was tracking an unusual flying object in the skies over our city.  The kids would all squeal with glee and hurry home to bed before Santa arrived.  I'm certain that kind old man did not mean harm, nor did my parents who would attribute the nicest gift from the next morning's "take" to the kindness of Santa Claus.  Sadly, it seems that the church and well-meaning christian parents have somehow lost their way over the years...  While on one hand they claim that Jesus- the Savior of the world- is the "reason for the season", on the other, they participate in the moralistic religious world view as seen through the eyes of every religion since the beginning of time, which teaches man that he must be good enough, or perform enough good deeds, to inherit blessings, favor, and eternal life.  The popular notion of Santa does the same... IF we are "good" boys and girls, we can expect the favor of the jolly old man from the North Pole.  Who doesn't want his favor, if it means packages and goodies on Christmas morning?  Many a child has agreed to keep their new founded "non" belief in Santa under wraps because they fear that if they no longer believe, the gifts might stop coming...  Oh my!  I'm suddenly wondering what in the world the Santa of our day and age has to do with the Christ child sent to save the world from such "bad news".  I'm suddenly not so worried that when they discover that I've been lying about Santa, maybe I'd been lying about Jesus' too!  Instead, I'm worried that I might convince them that they can somehow be good enough this year to obtain favor of any kind.  The message from the manger to the cross was that we could NOT be good enough to obtain anything close to the favor of God... Jesus was born to do that on our behalf!!!  This is GREAT NEWS and in hearing it afresh, I am naturally overcome with GREAT JOY!  

     Doug and I have more-or-less "ignored" Santa in our home for most of our parenting years.  We refuse to allow him to "steal the show" from Jesus!  And I want my children to know that even though I am fully aware of their short comings and many wrongs of the past year, I love them anyway, and want to shower them with special gifts to display our favor for them, in spite of those failures...  THAT is the story of Christmas in the giving of gifts, isn't it?  That is the story of Christmas in the giving of Christ over 2000 years ago.   I've enjoyed teaching my young children where the story of St Nicholas originated.  The godly man who annonymously dropped money into the stockings of the poor on Christmas eve did so out of his great love for the Christ child whose heart beats for the same!  

     This Christmas season, I am especially grateful that the wonderful GOOD NEWS,  the tidings of GREAT JOY were sent for ME!  Praise God that the GOOD NEWS of Christ trumps any bad news I might encounter this week in the halls of an intensive care unit or inside the walls of our home, or on the ledgers of our bank accounts...  All praise belongs to a God who could take even my worst mistakes and misdeeds, and somehow cover them with Good News instead of the wrath they merit.  Such a revelation causes me to want to drop onto my knees and worship such a great SAVIOR!  Welcome to the world, Lord Jesus!  

It appears that we are going home with a lot more than we came with... gifts for Rachel seem to be flooding into the room every day!  Some from kind children who wanted to share Christmas joy with children in the hospital this season, and yes, even one from a guy named Santa, dressed in a funny red suit.  We can't seem to get away from this fellow!... but he did bring a smile!

"To be certain of God..."

     "...means that we are uncertain in all our ways, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.  This is generally expressed with a sigh of sadness, but it should be an expression of breathless expectation!"  Oswald Chambers

     We got a call from the school today.  Rachel just wasn't acting like her "happy" self!  Something was wrong!  Her teacher was sure it was something with her heart "boo-boo".
     "Hurry!... Grab your keys!  Somebody get to the school... now!"  Mommy or Daddy to the rescue!  But as Daddy raced out the front door toward his car, I was suddenly reminded of a passing thought I'd had as I pulled Rachel's shirt over her head this morning.  Much of her "boo-boo" could be seen with this particular shirt... hmmm... wonder if that will be a problem?  Surely not... she's had such a "boo-boo" since before she could remember!  I finished dressing her, put a pretty bow in her hair, and sent my happy girl off for the day.  
     I grabbed a "boo-boo-hiding" tank top and tossed it to him as he sped away.  I had a sneaking suspicion that her heart was suddenly "hurting", but unfortunately, this kind of hurting heart could not be fixed.  Sadly... my suspicions were exactly what I had feared!  One too many kindergarteners had pointed... one too many had asked questions she didn't have the English to answer... and now she suddenly wanted to hide what she couldn't change.  Rachel grabbed the tank top immediately when she saw it in Daddy's hands... She scurried to the bathroom to change and returned with her familiar smile.  All was well again... her "boo-boo" was hidden from sight!  
      This is sooooo not OK with me!!!  I wanted to jump in my car and head directly to that school myself!  I'd interrogate every kindergarten student I could find... cross exam them one by one!  Send all the offenders to Kindergarten Detention or something!  If no one else is going to defend my little girl, I WILL!!!  ..."Who did it?  Huh?  How dare you make my precious baby feel embarrassed?  You must have missed the announcement, because that little girl is a hero!  That "boo-boo" you're pointing at is her badge of courage!!!"   
     Everything in my Mommy's heart wants to make it better for Rachel, but I can't!

     My youngest daughter, Ellie, was born without a left hand.  To make matters worse, her left arm is now nearly 6 inches shorter than her right.  It just never really occurred to me that this might be an "issue", as it certainly wasn't for me!  I had my first "rude awakening" before we even left China, when several older women took one look at her and actually SPIT on her in disgust!  As she grew and became more aware of her special hand, I found myself trying to protect her from staring eyes and overly curious children.  Most were just fascinated and asked questions, but I knew that this unwanted attention was beginning to bother Ellie when I saw her in a crowd of children she did not know, trying to hide her boo-boo hand.  It broke my heart!  
     Ellie is the most joy-filled little girl you'll ever meet!   She is kind and so, so tender hearted.  If someone else is hurting; if someone else is crying... Ellie will cry along!  So it's not hard to understand why I am simply not OK with my little girl's hurting heart... and her feeling as if she needed to hide what I thought made her most beautiful!   I nearly assaulted two little girls at the McDonald's PlayLand one day when I witnessed their jeers and stares at Ellie with my own eyes!... "Where are your mothers?  If they're not going to do something about this... then maybe I should!"  
     Everything in my Mommy's heart wants to make it better for Ellie, but I can't!

     Just today, my oldest son walked in my front door, discouraged and disappointed.  He unloaded his burdens on my already heavy heart.  His circumstances were unjust, with not much hope of change on the horizon.  And even though my son is 24 years old, the fighter in me rose up again for the second time today!  "Who do I need to set straight about this?  You stay right here, Russ!  I'll take care of it!!!"
     Everything in my Mommy's heart wants to make it better for Russ, but I can't!

     I decided to go on a bike ride to work off my energy, since the other options in doing so might completely ruin my Christian witness!  As is my habit (one of my better ones!), I blurted out my frustrations to the Lord!  "Everything in ME wants to do something... I can't!  But, YOU Lord!  You're all knowing... all loving... all powerful!   You're our defender... our advocate!  Please... do something!  Why aren't you???"  
     My mind scrolled back to the many times He had done something!  After all... I'd discovered many years ago that I was utterly powerless to change most things that needed changing.  I learned that simple lesson in the first semester of Marriage 101!!!  :-)  I smiled as I remembered the first time I forced myself to keep my mouth shut with my young husband and let God "do the talkin' " for me!  In less than 24 hours Doug had come to me to ask forgiveness for the "un-mentioned" offense...  He'd "read this" or "heard that" today and knew that God was talking directly to him about the way he had treated me!  "Thank you, Lord!  You did such a better job than I could have ever done!"  I tried not to gloat!
     I'll never forget the weekend I went out of town for a speaking engagement and left Doug with our three kids and the 5,000 square foot home we were "house-sitting"!  The home was on the market and would need to be cleaned and ready to show should an interested buyer want to take a look.  In the 3  years we'd lived there, this had only happened a dozen times or so.  But I'd been feeling a little weary and "taken for granted" by my wonderful husband, so I asked the Lord if He might "arrange" things so that Doug might experience things from my point of view while I was away!  You can only guess how absolutely thrilled I was when Doug called me on Saturday morning in a state of panic!  The realtor was bringing a prospective buyer to our home in one short hour!!!  What was he to do???  
     "Thank you, Lord!  You did such a better job than I could have ever done!"  Again, I really tried not to gloat!  :-)

     But today... heaven seemed silent!  Where was God when you really needed Him, I wondered?  My little girl needs you!  My big boy needs you!  I need you!  Where are you?? 
     Suddenly it occurred to me... and I mean suddenly!  Maybe God wasn't the problem at all!  Maybe the root of my problems were the very prayers themselves!  As I looked back over my adult life, I realized that almost 100% of the prayers spoken from difficult circumstances or the circumstances of the people I love were that God would intervene, defend, heal, bless, provide.  Inevitably, I asked God to "do something" and provide the outcome I desired.  Now, suddenly, I realize that so often God chooses to not change life's circumstances, but instead, use life's circumstances to change ME!   
     I'd like to think that I've thought of this before, and maybe I have... But today was a major "Ah-hah!" moment in my spiritual walk and it changes just about everything about my prayer life!  
     ...Like the way I pray for God to do a miracle in my daughters' lives and replace their insecurities with an even greater Security.  That they would discover even now that true joy comes from Him alone!  
     ...Or the way I pray for Him to do a work in my son's heart  ~ that he would defend those treated unjustly and stand up for the Truth, even if he stands alone. 
     Most importantly, it changes how I pray about my own circumstances...  I'd be lying if I said that I still don't want peace, or relief from pain, or restoration in broken places, or a complete healing of Rachel's heart...  But there is something I ultimately want so much more!  I want the Lord to change me!    I want Him to do a miracle in my heart and make it more like His! 

I have an admission to make...

     I hate Thanksgiving!  There... I said it!  Please don't send me hate mail or write me off as super un-spiritual, as I am of course speaking of the holiday, not the thanks-giving itself!  Because between the two lies a massive chasm! 
     Thanksgiving has become a comfy, cozy holiday where we stuff ourselves with fat-ladden food and try to reflect on all that is good and right in our lives for which to give thanks.  Even on Facebook, there was some kind of Thanksgiving thing going on where each day participants would name another something they were especially grateful for.  I didn't participate, as I wondered if anyone would appreciate comments such as "I thank God for the brokenness of this year, because in it I discovered Him to be enough!"  or "I thank God for the loss of this or that, because I gained something greater!"  
     Instead, we got a daily dose of all that is wonderful and good in everyone's lives... Their families; a special healing; a new job; the new home they just closed on...  I could have filled 365 days worth of thanks like these!  Why, Rachel's story alone would consume an entire year of praises!  This year God provided over $30,000. for Rachel's adoption and medical care; a new ministry for Doug (that included health insurance!); a church home with wonderful new friends; a new, "used" van to haul my growing family around in; and a spot on the beautiful beach I am writing from today!  
     But I'd need another full year in which to write the disappointments; the losses; the broken hearts; and the bottles of shed tears...  In the end, I am coming to realize that real, authentic "thanksgiving" is found in those broken places!  It is easy to give thanks for bounty... Not so when the blessings come disguised in loss!
     Please excuse my negativity toward the holiday!  In fairness, some of the family moments I'd most like to forget have been experienced around the Thanksgiving table.  And yet somehow, year after year, I try to recharge hope that the heart of Thanksgiving might return to my family table once again.  I feel somehow responsible as Mom and home maker to "create" these beautiful moments.  
     I spent hours planning, shopping, and in the kitchen preparing yesterday's very short-lived meal... alone.  Then it took many hours to clean up the mess that accumulated in the preparation of it all.  Not to mention the resulting devastation to the rest of my home left by three 7 year olds fending for themselves, while I was creating a delectable Thanksgiving feast.  I fell in bed, exhausted and not so thankful!
     Thanksgiving morning greeted me bright and early.  Time to unload the dishwasher from last night's mess and start all over again.  Pull all those casseroles and desserts from the refrigerators and stress out a little bit (well...maybe a lot!) in trying to get it all served up with a smile.  "Excuse me, family!  I'm trying to create the perfect Thanksgiving feast here!  Could you please get out of the way?"
     I would finally collapse into my seat at the table, sweating and exhausted, and then look to my family with great expectation of a warm, fuzzy, giving of thanks that would then occur around that dinner table.  What I got was a prayer I hardly remember, spoken just before the family consumed their meal less than a half hour after it began.  Then the "dinner guests" (I mean... family) moved to the living room to watch football or gathered on the back porch to chat, while I cleaned up the mess in the kitchen... alone. (OK... I guess I should be fair here... My Prince Charming DID help some!)
     Holidays, I have found, are like the pain of labor in childbirth.  Somewhere between now and next year's Thanksgiving celebration, I will forget the "pain" and will try once again to create the perfect Thanksgiving atmosphere for the family I love.  But maybe... just maybe, I'm becoming older and wiser and can finally let go of all the world's ideas of what Thanksgiving should be...  
     I wonder what would have happened yesterday at our Thanksgiving table if we had actually acknowledged the "elephants" that served as invisible centerpieces... Like the loved ones that were missing because of broken relationships or the pain of the past year that no one would dare speak of at that moment. 
     The Bible says to "Give thanks in ALL THINGS".  I think maybe we've lost our way over the many years since the first Thanksgiving celebration the Pilgrims and Indians shared.  The years that proceeded it had been devastating!  Most had lost loved ones to the cold winters, to starvation, and to rampant illnesses.  Many had likely buried children or a spouse.  And yet... they gathered to give thanks!  Somehow I think they understood that bounty was not found in their abundance or comfort, but in the God who presided over it all!  
     Today, while I sit here alone on the beach writing and reflecting on yesterday's "festivities", women across America are standing in line (or spraying fellow shoppers with pepper spray!) to be the first to get their hands on this years coveted gifts, and spending money they don't have to  create a magical holiday for their families.  And again, they will work tirelessly to try and make that happen. They will plan, bake, shop, wrap, and hold their breath in hopes that the recipients of it all will be happy and grateful.  
     I've been a mom for 24 years now, and I'm willing to take the risk and admit that every single year I've done all of the above, hoping for happy and grateful children on Christmas morning.  But again and again, I feel an incredible let down as Christmas day draws to a close.  Many times I have cringed silently as children tore into one gift, only to quickly lay it aside to see what was "next" or when I caught their eyes searching beneath the tree in hopes of finding something else for themselves...
     My grown kids still torture me and remind me how cruel my Christmas longings have been to their greedy hearts... How dare I insist we wake up together and share a special breakfast and then a reading of the real Christmas story before allowing them to become consumed in more "stuff"?
     Maybe I'm becoming old and cranky, but I've decided that I'm about "done" with the holiday scene all together!  Especially when I think about the measures we, as Moms, take to create this "magic".  Most of us will torture our entire family to capture the perfect family photo that portrays us all as happy and whole.  We'll attach letters that commemorate all the happy moments and special achievements of the last year and then somehow wrap it all up with the overused cheerful greeting... "Jesus is the Reason for the Season".  Excuse me for saying this, but...Gag me on it!!
     I have to laugh when I think about what kind of response I might get if I sent out a photo of our family and underneath listed the names of the family members "not pictured" because of a broken relationship and then attached a letter that simply said... "This has been the most difficult year we can remember, but God is faithful!  Come... let us adore Him!"
     In writing it today, I think that's exactly what I'll do... since when all is said and done, this truly IS "the reason for the season"!  Yes... even the Thanksgiving season!  Life is hard, it's complicated, it hurts,... but in it we can give thanks and fall on our knees in adoration of the God who is God of it all!
     Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and his death outside of Jerusalem 33 years later would give "reason" for every season of our lives!  Yes, this year has been one of the most painful and joy-filled years of my life!  For THIS I give thanks and enter this new holiday season on bended knees, encouraging the little girls that look to me to lead them...  "Come... let us adore Him!"

Following are a few of the things that made our Thanksgiving around here happy!...
Need I say how much I love these three treasures?
And days still filled with wonderful "firsts"... like licking the brownie bowl!  Yum!
New Friends brought into our lives by God Himself!
Locking arms with a Godly man who knows much of what it means to suffer for Christ!
No more yucky medicine! Daddy will have to dumpster dive for this viagra!
Thankful that there's always a reason to dance!

Daddy's Princess...

Tonight, while shopping at Target, the girls were given the opportunity to choose one of the many choices of bubble bath for themselves.  There were all the typical Disney characters... Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the Power Rangers, Sponge Bob Square Pants... But the only one for our girl laden home was, of course, the princesses! What pure delight such a simple thing like bubble bath brings to our precious new 7 year old!  Rachel would hold this prize personally until it was time to check out...  She sat in the cart and admired the bottle in her hands...  "Oh, so pretty!  Look Mommy!", she exclaimed in perfect English, as she pointed to one of the beautiful blondes on the bottle... "Snoring Beauty!"

What can I say?  I'm a 47 year old Mom that is teaching my young daughter that even snoring Sleeping Beauties (that would be me!) can be princesses!  I must be doing something right!  :-) 

I didn't ask for this...

Come to think of it... I didn't ask for ANY of this!  I asked for peace and happiness and for the restoration of a broken relationship.   I asked the Lord to ease the pain.  I asked for a scholarship for my college bound son and I asked (this one is embarrassing!) for a bigger house...  I asked for a healthy 9 year old girl from China.  I got none of the above, and yet I got so much more!  What I got, instead, were the Lord's sweet mercies in disguise!  

It would be safe to say that the past year has been the hardest one I can ever remember.  I have probably shed more tears of absolute sadness and loss in the last twelve months than I have shed in my entire lifetime combined.  If the Lord does store my tears in bottles, He's surely broken out the gallon jugs by now!  And yet, as low as the lows have been, the highs have been even higher!  It has been a year of incredible losses, and yet immeasurable gains!   

When I remember the past year in the days ahead... I will remember it as a wonderfully sweet time in my life when I discovered God to be so immeasurably more than I ever imagined!  I'm stumbling for words to even describe what a treasure these incredibly difficult days have been because they have revealed a side of God that I might have missed in days of "ease".  And though I've known Him for most of my life, I've found that God's ways still take me by surprise and His sweet mercies still take my breath away every time I discover them!

I asked Him for a healthy 9 year old, but He answered with a 7 year old girl, dying of a broken heart.  Her precious spirit has added an unmeasurable sweetness to our home and every day seems like another miracle straight from the storehouse of God!  How could I have guessed that God's greatest gift to us was wrapped in a little girl with the label-  "No Hope"?  A precious treasure in disguise...

I asked Him to take away my pain, but He promised instead to walk through it with me and proved His friendship to be more treasured than relief from that pain.  I am slow to run to Him with my delights... but will linger in His arms when I am hurting.  This time together~ a precious gift in disguise...

I asked for a bigger home, but God gave me time today with my hero in the faith, John, and his family, who were brought to America as Bhutanese Refugees, after many of them had actually suffered months of imprisonment and beatings in the name of Christ.  He wonders how he will pay his rent this month... and next.  I am struck by how incredibly blessed we are to have a roof over our heads and a warm bed in which to snuggle at night.  My home is suddenly quite big enough! And the money we save, a blessing to be passed on to others as we discover an even greater joy than a larger home could bring!  A new perspective~ a gift in disguise...

And through each "unanswered" prayer, I've learned above everything that I can trust Him!   I thought I already did!  But what I discovered were 10 fingers wrapped tightly around my ideas of what I thought was "better".  And yet in His mercy, He gave His best instead!  I guess that it takes years like the one I've just walked through to really discover Him and all that He is~  Precious mercies in disguise...

And through that trust, I am learning to let go.  Unwrapping those fingers one by one has been a painful process, but they have been replaced with hands wide open toward heaven.  "Take it all Lord, so that my hands are empty and ready to receive your sweet mercies..."

If God had given me all that I had asked for, I'd have none of what He had for me!  I shutter to think what I'd have missed!  The promises in God's Word are enough... I will rest there!  His Love is way too much to give me "lesser things".  I know that God's often "disguised" mercies will ultimately bring about the healing of hearts that are broken like Rachel's, and yes...even broken hearts like mine!  A day of restoration will come.  I need not wonder "if", but "when".  

"Oh Lord, give me the faith to believe that sometimes your
blessings come through rain drops... your healing comes through tears... that maybe a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you're near...and that my greatest disappointments and the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can't satisfy.
Oh, to believe that the trials of this life...the rain, the storms, the hardest nights, are your MERCIES IN DISGUISE!"   

(During my bike rides this week, I've listened to this song again and again, as if trying to "cement" this truth into my hard head once and for all!  Click play and I think you'll see why!)

Click to Play "Blessings".
- .


Rachel spent the first 7 years of her life in what most consider to be, a "model" orphanage in China.  I've been in many orphanages around the world, and after visiting the Shanghai CWI, I'd probably have to agree.  And yet a "model" orphanage is still an orphanage, and no matter how you make it look on the outside... it is filled with orphans!  I struggle to even type the words "model" and orphanage in the same sentence!  A child alone, without a mommy and daddy to embrace, to tuck you in at night, to feed you around the dinner table, to provide for your needs, and to know you well enough to even know what delights you and brings a smile is not a "model" of any kind in my opinion!  I'll bet Rachel would agree!...

When we met Rachel 7 weeks ago, it was obvious that she knew so little of what "normal" life was like outside the four walls of that "model" orphanage.  She ran as if she'd never run before... and was obviously totally clueless in how to climb a ladder and slide by herself.  Getting onto and off of a bicycle, let alone peddle it was another completely new concept!  Today I learned through a group of families that has adopted children from Rachel's orphanage, that the children were actually taken outside for a "brisk walk" only twice a year... once in the spring and again in the fall.  Sadly, after meeting Rachel, I think this might really be true... 

In light of Rachel's life for 7 years, it would be safe to say that every single day includes a "first" for her of some kind or another!  Spending the day with Rachel is one of the most fascinating, humbling, and exciting things I've ever experienced!  In light of this, I can understand why I get the looks I get from her every time I pull the camera out AGAIN!....  In fairness to her, we're not talking about a daily occurrence, but an hourly one... at least! 

When you start documenting all these wonderful "firsts" at birth, they are spread out over a relatively long period of time.  But when you grow up inside the walls of an orphanage with nearly 600 other children... many of life's firsts go completely unnoticed and there certainly isn't a camera around to capture the moment!  Sadly, for Rachel, many of the "normal" firsts never happened at all!  So at 7 years old, she is enjoying many new experiences that we might not have even thought to capture with our other 5 kids...  Like her first warm bath, or her first trip up a ladder and down the slide, or peddling a bike, swimming in a pool, or dipping your toes into the ocean waves after walking across sand and seashells to get there!  Or being rocked to sleep at night, hugging your first baby doll, and being licked on the face by the family dog!  Or jumping on a trampoline, swinging in a hammock, or scooting on a scooter.  You name it... there's a good chance she's never experienced it before!  

Yesterday's first was especially special!... Rachel went to school for the very first time!  Yes, you read that right!  She saw her cardiologist last Friday and he cleared her to go!  So, less than three weeks after open heart surgery, Rachel started school!  

She was obviously nervous when we went to register her, meet her teacher and tour her new classroom, but that didn't last long and by the time we tucked her into bed the night before the big day, she had her rolling back pack ready to go and had requested her favorite noodles for her lunch box!  Precious girl~ You are so brave and so willing to look your fears directly in the face and overcome them!  We have so much to learn from you!

Being the incredible public-school mommy that I am...:-)  I actually drove Rachel to school on her first morning and personally walked with her to her new classroom.  She was confident and self assured... even walking ahead of me most of the way!  She happily walked into her class, and greeted the world's most wonderful, answer to many prayers, kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Brogdon!  I'm not the kind of Mom that cries when I finally say goodbye to my kindergarteners on their first day of school, but today...  I considered full-out wailing!!!  It's been a hard few months, which has included ZERO time alone for me, but I have treasured these days filled with beautiful moments so much!  I am sad to see them end... But the end of one journey means the beautiful beginning of another and I have no doubt that many more beautiful moments lie ahead as Rachel begins living the rest of her miraculous story!  I feel so privileged to celebrate this exciting "first" with Rachel today!  It is, of course, all documented digitally so that I can share these special moments with you... Here they are!...

Here's to the second day!  Rode the bus to school and back home again!...