December 24, 2016

A Story for Christmas

This was written several years ago as reflections on Christmas I shared with a Bible class at church. I was reminded of it again this year, and wanted to share it with you. Merry Christmas!

The sun had set long ago. The wind blew the snow around the kitchen window, shimmering in the porch light. Christmas Eve was here…and you took a deep breath. Preparing for the holidays had been a crazy affair this year. It always is, of course, but something about this year just knocked you out. But it was all done, and Christmas was tomorrow. The kids would wake up early, family would be over shortly after, and chaos would descend. But somewhere in the early afternoon of Christmas, the party would be done, the kids would be playing contentedly, Grand-dad would be napping on the recliner, responsibilities hiding themselves for a few hours, and you thought you’d be able to get a snooze of your own in for the first time in weeks.

You were just pouring yourself a cup of chamomile and thinking about turning in when…the phone rang.

A lot of families get into foster parenting because they just love kids. Many see a picture in the paper or at church of kids waiting for adoption, and realize that their family had enough love for some kids who needed rescuing. While you suppose those things were true for you, when you were really honest with yourself, your family plain needed a bit of extra cash. It wasn’t much—kids’ appetites saw to that—but it gave just a bit more flexibility to an adequate but tight budget.

So, several years ago, you’d gone through the whole process: application, background checks, interviews with social workers. And the kids came, all ages, all abilities, with all sorts of baggage and hurt, some for just a night, and some for weeks or months. What a ride: your biological kids learned far more about the broken world around them then you ever intended, you heard stories of abuse and neglect that haunted you for weeks on end, you hugged, you cried, you taught, you screamed, and somehow God had provided what you needed.

The phone rang again. You snapped back to see what had started this reverie: Social Services’ “hidden” number showed up on Caller ID. “Not tonight!” you thought, but before you even knew what you were doing, you were done with the conversation and hanging up the phone.

“Who was that, honey?” your spouse asks from the hallway. Your mind madly whirred. Who had called was easy enough to answer—but what they’d said, or what you’d said—you had to remember somehow. Slowly, the fog clears, and you realize: you are just about to have another kid. They’d drop him off in an hour. And he was sixteen.

Older kids in foster care are often some of the most challenging. Often, they have years of baggage from parents who kept one step away from having their rights terminated, or perhaps kept out of the sight of the law for years. Despite social worker’s best intentions, often they bounce from one family to another, rubbing salt into their scars. It isn’t unusual for them to have to work out a lot of anger and sadness at the people who—from their vantage point—have abandoned them. It’s true of foster kids of nearly any age, but to add that baggage to the normal teenage angst…wow.

The doorbell rang. The knot in your stomach seemed to have banished any thoughts of sugarplums that might have been in your dreams tonight. You opened the door, and the social worker makes introductions. “This is Josh. I don’t know how long he’ll need to stay. We’ve got his things here in this trash bag—you’ll probably want to make sure they get a wash right away. Here’s a list of his medical and counseling appointments—the first one is the day after tomorrow. He doesn’t have any visitations with his family. Thank you! Good night!”…and they disappear into the swirling snow.

Josh looks at down at you—he’s a tall one, that’s for sure. “Can I come in?”

You catch yourself and smile. “Come on in, Josh. Let me show you your room and introduce you to the rest of the family.” Your world changed…and it still was Christmas Eve.

It’s been a couple months since Josh arrived. You are honestly not sure what to think. It’s been one of the most difficult parenting tasks you’ve ever had—and you aren’t even sure why.

Josh isn’t a challenge in the ways you expected. He doesn’t seem to be holding the angst most teenagers do. He didn’t talk about his family much. Perhaps that was to be expected. He finished his schoolwork regularly and surprisingly fast. (You were about to accuse him of slacking off, but his teachers assured you he was doing fine. Not brilliant, perhaps, but fine.) He even helped out look after the little ones more often than your own high-schoolers. One-on-one, Josh got along great with everyone in your family.

The problem seemed to be with the rest of you. Ever since Josh had come, it was like a family war had started. Some days it was subtle—little digs from one sibling to another. Some days it was blatant—kids physically hurting each other, calling each other names that you certainly had never taught them. You’d never had teachers call you about your own kids before.

You knew that you’d always looked at the other foster parents you knew with some degree of amazement. Sure, everyone had their crazy stories, but they seemed to take it in with a grace and stride you envied. The last months made you wonder ever more deeply if you were capable of being a decent parent at all, let alone foster parenting. Was your home healing anyone or anything?

Your marriage wasn’t faring much better. Seems like all you did was fight and disagree these days. Both of you wanted something better, but neither of you saw how to escape the chaos that you were in. You were exhausted, at the end of your rope, had no idea where to turn. You really loved your spouse and your whole family and even Josh…but it seemed like everything you did just backfired.

It sounds crazy—and maybe you were only speaking for yourself—but it was almost as if every day you saw more and more clearly how much you fell short, and—without meaning to—you took it out on those around you. You knew all the ways in which you had prioritized your own dreams or (especially!) your responsibilities to other people above the needs of the people in your family. You knew all the times in which “I’m too tired right now.” was code for “I’d rather do my own thing.” You knew all the times in which you blamed someone else—your spouse, the kids, your parents, your church, your boss, anyone else—for something that, if it came right down to it, was entirely your fault. You knew the shadows of your parents’ failures kept rearing their ugly heads—not to mention still seeking their approval.

And somehow this had all started when Josh came.

Fast forward another couple months, another Christmas. You can’t say things have improved, but the whole family has plugged along.

The strange thing was that, suddenly, Josh’s family has made contact. That was the last thing you expected—and, frankly, it felt a lot like the last thing you wanted. I mean, of course you wanted him to know his family—but he didn’t need any more emotional distress than he’d had in your house already, did he? And, frankly, you really loved the kid, and would be happy to officially adopt him. But, it wasn’t your decision. And the situation was actually stranger than that. His family lived down south aways, and it’d be quite a trip. The social worker said that they’d pay mileage, so you all decided maybe this was a good time to have a vacation for Christmas. You piled into the minivan, and started driving.

It was towards the end of the second day of driving. You were supposed to get to his parents sometime early tomorrow after sleeping the night in another hotel. Josh was at the wheel, and, amazingly everyone was sleeping—mostly exhausted from each other’s close company. You started nodding off yourself.

“JOSH! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!? WE CAN’T GO HERE!” The scream from one of the back seats woke you up with a start. You looked outside, and you couldn’t believe your eyes. You were pulling away from some sort of guardhouse with a gate—on the inside! What on earth was Josh doing? You couldn’t find words. You were just about to grab the steering wheel yourself when you saw the little smirk on Josh’ face and the sparkle in his eye.

“Trust me,” he said.

And, somehow, you did.

In fact, pretty soon, the whole family was in curious murmurs. You drove over small rolling hills, acres of grass kept better than you knew how to keep your little yard at home. There were small patches of forest, manicured gardens with statues and flowers in full bloom (at Christmas?!?), ponds with fountains and fish jumping, and everything gleamed in a way that you’d only ever seen in storybooks. And it didn’t have the feel of flaunted opulence like Hollywood stars—no fancy cars in sight. It had that feeling of a fairytale kingdom. You know, where the king is fantastically rich—but he is also good, and delights to make things that his subjects enjoy.

You hardly had time to process how absurd that sounded when, suddenly, there was the house. Gigantic and fantastically expensive, yes, but you had this feeling about it that you couldn’t shake. It wasn’t even just that you’d never seen a mansion like this before, or that the uniformed guards were apparently playing hopscotch with children on the front lawn. Something down deep resonated in a way that you hadn’t felt since that last time you went to your parents old house for Christmas. It felt like home.

Josh pulled right up to the front door and jumped right out. “Father!” he yelled, with all the excitement of a toddler tearing apart a Christmas gift. “They are here! They’re here! Come see them! Come meet the family I’ve chosen.” Turning back to the car, and pulling open the doors, “Mom, Dad, everyone. Come on out. I want you to meet my Father. I’ve chosen you as my family, and my Father and I have decided to adopt you.”

You are even more speechless than you were before. You aren’t entirely sure how you got out of the car and stood in front of it. You gaze around, completely incapable of understanding what is going on. Josh’s voice kept going.

“No, no mistake. I know it has been a hard year for you all. I’ve seen everything that’s wrong with you. I know all the ways in which you haven’t been good parents, or good siblings, or good children. I’ve seen it all. But it doesn’t matter. The price has been paid, and the wounds will be healed. I have chosen you as my family. Come and see what my Father has prepared for you.”

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