Vulnerability

vulnerable

I was surprised last month when I looked up the definition of “vulnerable”. But as I contemplated on it more, it think it is truly fitting. Brett and I have chosen to share our journey the past 15 months publicly. As we have done this, we have left ourselves open to being hurt, misunderstood, judged, and criticized. While each of these things have happened, I am pleased to report that has not been the majority of the story. For the most part, we have been surrounded by loving people who want to support us, pray for us, come alongside us, and even mourn our losses with us. Being vulnerable and sharing our journey of pregnancy and miscarriage has been scary and exhausting at times. But we have most recently been in a season of reaping its good fruit, and I’d like to share:

January 2015, we were thrilled to announce the pregnancy of our 4th child, our son, Timothy Luke. We had previously thought we were done having children but God had opened our hearts to more and we were excited to experience the journey again. Like my first 3, this pregnancy was physically difficult, but as we approached week 12, I was elated to move into the second trimester, and hopefully, better health. We were SHOCKED at our 12 week appointment to learn our son had no heartbeat. It was the week of Easter, a time of celebrating the resurrection of our Savior and we decided to ask the Lord for the same for our son- a resurrection miracle. We waited 3 days and went back in for another ultrasound to see that he was gone. Heartbroken, I had surgery the next day, the day before Good Friday, and held a Celebration of Life Service for him the day before Easter.

We were surrounded that day by 60 of the loveliest friends who dropped their plans to comfort and mourn with us. It was a day of absolute heartbreak, but we were completely overwhelmed with tangible love and kindness. In the weeks following, we continued to have friends, and even people we didn’t know well, show up with food, encouraging notes, and love. Months later, we decided to try again and were elated to announce our 5th pregnancy, our daughter Evelyn, the week of Brett’s 30th birthday. So many people reached out to tell us they were praying with us and to encourage us. Complete strangers wrote us and told us our sharing had touched them and given them the courage to share about their “heavenly babies” too. As I made it through more months of first trimester sickness, I continued to be encouraged by friends and comforted as we faced our fears in the journey. Then, at our 12 week appointment, the day after Timothy’s due date, we headed in for our regularly scheduled appointment and met our worst nightmare. For my 30th birthday, we found out that Evelyn, our beloved daughter, had also passed. It didn’t make any sense. I hadn’t had ANY signs or symptoms to tell me she was gone. I had continued to be sick, and to even grow all the way to the day of the appointment.

At this point, I was so angry, I couldn’t even fathom facing people with our loss. I remember crying to our beloved pastors that day, throwing an absolute fit, and screaming that I didn’t want to go through all this again. I didn’t want to tell anyone and I didn’t want my family to have to grieve again just 6 months after losing Timothy. As we notified family and friends, our closest people showed up at our home and just cried with us. They didn’t say anything, they didn’t try to “fix” us, they were just there. They listened, they validated, and they loved us well. More people showed up with food, love and kindness. One stranger even gave us a check that covered the entire medical bill for my second surgery. The pain was unbearable but the tangible love of God’s people somehow carried us through it.

Months passed and we worked our way through the holidays in a sea of huge emotions. The waves of grief came at unexpected moments and we wondered if we’d ever have the strength to “try again.” Brett and I both sought counseling and inner healing from pastors at our church. We faced our anger, our hurt, our disappointment and took it to Jesus. We didn’t run, we didn’t hide- even in the moments we most wanted to. We allowed ourselves to feel the pain and disappointment. We allowed our close family and friends to hear our hearts break and although they couldn’t “do” anything to make it better, they were there. And they prayed.

Come January of this year, we were thrilled to find out we were expecting our 6th miracle. We chose to tell our close friends and family right away and asked them to pray with and for us. We knew this experience would not be easy to process and that we would need our “people” there for us. For safety precautions, our doctor decided to follow this pregnancy very closely. During week 5, we got a call that my blood work revealed we would probably miscarry. We were sent in for an early ultrasound, only to find that the baby was fine! Then, during week 6, I began to have signs of miscarriage and I was sent in for another ultrasound, only to find I was having hemorrhage issues, that did not appear to be bothering the baby as the baby was fine again! I was then put on medicine to help strengthen my uterus and told it would likely “intensify your morning sickness”. This was difficult news as my sickness was already in full swing and I was more sick than I had been in any of my previous pregnancies. Week 7, 8, and 9 were horrible. I found that I could barely function physically, and I began to deal with bouts of depression. By the end of week 9, I reached out to a dear friend and told her I thought maybe the medicine I was taking was causing the depression. She suggested I see my doctor immediately and my doctor agreed I was having an adverse reaction and it was time to come off it. (During this time we had the typical week 8 ultrasound that, again, showed a perfect and healthy baby). By week 10, the depression began to fade, but I got terribly sick and ended up with a sinus infection on top of the continued pregnancy sickness that was 24/7.

During all this, I had so many moments that I would lose it to Brett and tell him I didn’t think I could do this anymore. I had so many days I felt that I was failing. I was discouraged and often felt disoriented in my own head and body. The past 7 weeks have been some of the most difficult days of my life physically and emotionally. As the Bethel song “We Dance” says, I was in a place that my “faith felt tired and my hope seemed lost.” BUT- those are the moments that so many of you have reached out and encouraged me. Every day, another person would text me and say they just want me to know they are praying for me. Every day, someone has reached out with love and let me know they are fighting for me in prayer and in love and believing for the life of my little one. Many times, I was too sick to even respond. But then, somewhere around the 11th week, Brett and I realized that BECAUSE we had been vulnerable and BECAUSE we have shared our story with others, all of those people have been praying in faith and hope when we could not. We realized that even though our journey has been hard, and intimate, and difficult to share, we are now reaping the good fruit of vulnerability in that we have a community of people who love us and are holding us up now, when we are too weak to do it ourselves.  Just as Moses needed his friends to hold up his arms, we have needed an army to help us in this season and they have!

Yesterday, I reached the 12 week mark. My 12 week appointment isn’t until Monday, so I have the weekend to process and prepare. I feel a range of big emotions from grief to joy, disappointment to thankfulness. The swirl in my mind is a wild storm that cannot seem to be tamed. But even in that, I was able to cry on the shoulder of my husband this morning, mourning the loss of my son Timothy. Shortly after, and friend gave me a long extended hug knowing I am sad I am not about to give birth to Evelyn in 2 weeks and it feels as if she’s been forgotten. That was followed by the loving and patient question of another friend asking me how I am really doing facing my appointment on Monday. All these wonderful, loving and sweet people are there for me and I know that while I am not in control of the outcome, I am not alone. God has sent His people to me to love me, hug me, and comfort me along the journey. It’s the Body of Christ, and although its imperfect and messy, it is necessary and I am so thankful for it.

So I want to end this with a Thank You to every one of you who have prayed, hoped, hugged, text, and reached out to me, Brett, Elle, and Johnny the past year. Never did I imagine what we would go through, but I also never knew just how wonderful of people Jesus had surrounded us with. Thank you, every one of you, for being the hands and feet of Jesus in our times of difficulty and hardship. I know being vulnerable and sharing your hardships, losses, and heartbreaks leaves you susceptible and open to being hurt or wounded, but I can testify it also leaves you open to be loved on and cared for when you least thought you’d need it. When we shared our journey last year at Timothy’s service, I never thought I’d be here one year later. But I am. And thanks to Jesus and His people, I am finding myself covered and loved in our toughest of times.

We survived our first year of youth ministry.

1 yr pastors

*Brett & I celebrating our one year milestone as youth pastors!*

From a conversation with my 5 year old son, Johnny, last night:

Johnny: “Mom, I want you to know that I don’t like it when you get all angry with me.”
Me: “Johnny, that is great communication. I am sorry I got upset and acted out of my anger. Would you please forgive me?”
Johnny: “Yes mom. I forgive you. But I need you to work on not getting angry.”
Me: (internal humility pep talk pause) “I hear you son. I will work on that. I also have a request: Could you please work on listening when mommy speaks to you, and responding? I feel dishonored when you ignore me while I am speaking to you. Sometimes it feels like you don’t pay attention until I get upset. Could we both work on those things?”
Johnny: “Yeah mom. It sounds like we both have some things to work on and just need some more practice till we get better at it.” 🙂

Today is the day! Today is one year that we have survived, erhm, I mean, been on the job. Joking, mostly, but totally serious about celebrating this milestone! The past year has been amazingly fun, intensely challenging, beyond stretching, and an “in over my head” kind of beautiful! About 15 months ago, I prayed a dangerous prayer and asked God to “help me love the way You do. Help me to love people even when they’re being unlovable or I have an offense toward them. Help me mature in my love so that its no longer about me, but about You and Your beloveds- all of them.” Now, don’t read between the lines, I am NOT saying teens are unlovable. At the time I prayed this prayer, the youth pastor job hadn’t even been posted. More accurately, I’d spent about six months on staff at the School of Supernatural Life and was beginning to see that the way I loved people was based more off me: my preferences, my favorites, what I got out of it- and I was done. That veil was lifted and I didn’t like what I was seeing. I was desperate to know more of the heart of God and to love the way He does. So- I said my dangerous prayer with all sincerity and within about 3 months, I found myself and Brett as the new youth pastors! We were thrilled, nervous, excited and I had already forgotten that prayer I had prayed months earlier.

Let me give a little insight here. Brett, my amazing husband, was born for this job. No doubt about it. At 29 years young, he still is a teen at heart and always will be. He is naturally friends with all the young men at our church and gets them. He is an extrovert and has the gifting of exhortation and loves to love. It was no surprise that he would flourish in this position. I, on the other hand, am a little different. I am more introverted and I tend to come across very serious (which I think is just my mix of observing, contemplating, and/or administrative brain working out a plan). As a first born child with three younger brothers, I have always leaned more toward the “being responsible” personality types than the “cut loose and have a good time” ones that you read about in personality tests. One of my personal goals, however, is to learn to be more childlike and I knew being around teens a lot, I’d probably get some pointers.

What I didn’t know, prepare myself for, or even consider, is how much stretching it would take to learn to communicate with so many diverse people. And I don’t just mean teens. I am in conversation with their parents regularly. I am also interacting with people on a large scale and every single human we come into contact with has their filter, or lens if you will, of what “pastor” means (or should mean). Shoot, if I am honest, even I had my filters of what I should be looking like, doing, accomplishing, etc. Mix that with the fact that the previous youth pastors had been there for years and ran things differently than we did, and then we toss in the discomfort of change! (and like most adults, teenagers do not like change). So, I came into this job with expectations, and was completely caught off guard by how different we all are as people and our methods for interacting. There are WAY too many facets of that to mention this time, but I recognize now that there are many and that has helped my little heart to let everyone else, and myself, off the hook of expectation. I am realizing we are ALL in process. Especially me- and without grace and forgiveness, we won’t get anywhere but offended and isolated.

Which is where I was around Christmas. That’s right, I am walking in the light and confessing- I was struggling as a pastor. Six months into the job, I felt unappreciated, misunderstood, burnt out, and hurt. Not by any one person or thing in particular. More just because of so many “misses”. I like to have a plan and work the plan well as to manage resources responsibly. In the first six months, we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off just trying to figure out what we were doing. I felt major distress from this and missed the heart of it all. I had miscommunications with students and parents. I had misses with my family- both my kids and husband as well as my extended family. Life changed overnight and it was a big adjustment. By Christmas, I was questioning everything and in a desperate plea, I asked God what was going on?!? All I heard was my own quiet voice, “Father, help me love the way You do.” That was it. It was that simple. He was answering my prayer and I am in the thick of it. I am on a learning curve and learning is not always easy or comfortable. As we all know, it’s usually very uncomfortable and difficult and messy. And that is what it felt like. So, with relief and gratitude, I re-surrendered it all to Him and asked for wisdom on how to do this all His way and not my own.

The biggest tip He gave me was to enter back into rest. (God is a smart guy after all, so I decided to give it a more serious and intentional effort). Brett and I started delegating out more things. Trusting our assistant and team with more of the ministry tasks so we could be more available for relationship. Wow- it changed everything! I started praying “Father, give me Your eyes to see people, Your ears to hear people, and Your heart to love people” and He did. Daily, I would have new revelation of the Father’s love for people in my life, at the church, and even in the world. Grace flew in as offenses fell off. I could feel myself completely in over my head, but it was the most safe and secure I felt knowing my Daddy had it all taken care of. In this process, we found out we were pregnant with our third child, a son. At a routine prenatal appointment, we found out his precious heart had stopped beating. We prayed and petitioned God for a miracle for 3 days the week of Easter. After going back for another ultrasound, we were heartbroken to learn our son, Timothy Luke Ratliff, had returned to the arms of Jesus. This was a terrible heart breaking experience, but in the midst of it all, I was comforted to know I could grieve and simply rest in the arms of a loving Father who was taking care of every detail. As we stood before the youth group and shared what had happened, I noticed new depth of relationship and trust was unfolding between us and them. As our community poured out love and support, my appreciation for the body of Christ was refreshed. As we endured one of life’s most painful losses, our hearts were wrecked by the love and faithfulness of God the Father and the loving community He placed us in. It was a beautiful Romans 8:28 moment where God took a terrible loss and caused everything to work together for the good.

All the pruning of my old man that had happened in the most recent season was beginning to make way for new life and new fruit. All the difficulty of the first six months was being revealed in new light and God was giving me new tools and experiences to grow yet again. What I realized is while I do NOT have everything figured out, I have grown a bit and matured in my love. And that my dear friends- is a WIN! As we closed our first year as youth pastors last night, it was only fitting for my sweet, hysterically comical, five year old son to connect to the Holy Spirit and pour out some witty wisdom: “It sounds like we both have some things to work on and just need some more practice till we get better at it.” Yes, we are all in process. Being an imperfect person loving imperfect people is messy. Our Father in heaven is the only one who loves perfectly, but in His perfect love He is more than willing to keep growing us in love and perfecting us daily in Christ. And for that- I am incredibly grateful, comforted, and excited about my future!

Blessings,

Shailey

Our children do not fit in a box! (and neither do we)

kids in a box

This afternoon I read Max Lucado’s book, The Oak Inside the Acorn to Elle and Johnny before rest time. It’s a precious story of how a little acorn had to let go of his mother oak, even though he was afraid, and go off into the world to be the oak God made him to be. It ends well and has a great story line that includes the importance of not trying to be anyone but who God created you to be. However, my sweet four-year-old Johnny could not get past the part where the frightened little acorn had to let go of his mommy oak tree. Johnny welled up with huge tears and continued to silently cry throughout the book. Upon finishing, he looked up at me completely heartbroken, wrapped his arms tightly around my neck and said, “Mommy, I don’t EVER want to let go of you!” (melting!)

In the midst of Johnny’s big emotion, I was intrigued by Elle’s reaction to him. She leaned over and whispered to me, “Why is Johnny crying?” Elle was not be condescending nor teasing. She genuinely did not understand what had upset him so much. She did not feel the same great devastation of letting go that Johnny and the little acorn in the story had. It amazes me how my two children, raised exactly the same, are so very different in nearly every situation.

After putting the kids down for a nap, I reflected on the whole scene. Neither child was wrong, or better, in their response to the story. In fact, when we were given that story a year ago, they each had different responses back then. I was tempted to post something cute on Facebook about Johnny, but immediately thought of all the comments/feedback I would receive. It would be easy to take our experience from today and label my children for the coming years: “Johnny is so sweet and tenderhearted, but Elle doesn’t even think about it.” Or maybe, “Johnny is such a mama’s boy but Elle is very independent.” All common things you hear parents say about their children. I believe these comments are never said with ill intentions, but they are common, and possibly harmful, non-the-less. So my question today is: Why do we put our children in boxes? Aren’t they in process? Don’t they deserve the space to grow and change. Today, that story hit something for Johnny that evoked him to display precious and wonderful emotion that I will treasure forever. But is that how he will react next year? Next week?

Better yet- Why do we put ourselves and each other in boxes? Don’t we deserve to also be in process and to change? Sure, it is helpful to come to know ourselves better as well as what we value, what feeds our spirits and what deflates them. But doesn’t that also change as we go through life experiences like marriage, crisis, parenthood, etc. I am pretty sure the only person who is the same yesterday, today and forever is God. But on that note- don’t we constantly try putting God in our box as well? I think we need to give Him space to blow up our boxes!

There is a sign someone painted at our church that says something like, “If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped.” We are made in His image and every day we seek after Him and His plans for our lives, we become more like Him. We are not the same yesterday, today and forever because we are constantly in process. Our children are constantly in process. Lets all have a little more grace for ourselves, and each other, and stop wasting time permanently labeling people with our nuances. Instead lets celebrate the beauty of our process and stages and energize each other with life-giving encouragements.

After cuddling Johnny and assuring him he would not have to let go of mommy the way the acorn did, I hugged both of my children and told them how much I love their hearts. I told them that I love how God is shaping their individual personalities and that I get to be their mommy. I am guilty of at times labeling my children. But today, I celebrated the moment and tried to just allow it to be that- a wonderful moment. In ten years, Johnny may still be very emotive and Elle may not, or visa versa. But today, I will not label them and convince them they are to be any one way. I will celebrate the wonder of the present and be open to what God has for each of them.