Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Together Again

Relationships are always in flux. Even our relationship with those who are dead are not exactly static because even though the deceased no longer walk the earth with us, we maintain a continuing connection (even if only within ourselves) with those who have formed our lives. The family drama is dynamic because the cast of characters continually changes costume, grows in self-awareness and morphs into new being. It may (or may not) be true that the family unit is the most basic of civilization, but this is not because it is the most static component of human living.

In the nearly ten years that Claudia and I have been married our family life has changed on a near-daily basis. In the early years it was watching our youngest children rapidly acquire language or independent skills. And now in these more mature years of our family life the transformation continues.

The last eighteen months have been particularly challenging ones for us as a family. I cannot speak for the other members of our family, but I'm not sure I've ever endured a more excruciating period of time in my life. It was two years ago, while living with a high school senior, that I began to realize how fleeting time is. I anticipated, but even at that not quite accurately, how difficult that transition would be for me. I was not, however, anticipating that around that same time we would be losing from the family three sons, not only our oldest son.

Letting go of our oldest son was (and is) difficult, but the pain was salved because of its normalcy. Someone who has completed high school and is moving on to college is normal. While it is difficult to parent that transition, it is an appropriate, and necessary move toward a new relationship. None of the other options at that point are very appealing -- a post-high school child who has the capacity for higher education and opts for a minimum-wage job or perpetual lounging around the home with little responsibilty is no pleasure.

But losing our other two sons at the ages of fourteen and fifteen was much more difficult. It was neither an appropriate nor a necessary transition. I suspect they envisioned their choices leading them down a road of freedom and independence, but it only resulted in more restrictive environments for each of them and months away from their family's love and commitment.

Last year at this time we met them in separate locations to celebrate Christmas. Our then-fourteen-year-old son met us at a Perkin's for 90 minutes to celebrate his Christmas. It was a bittersweet affair. Knowing that his future was uncertain and that our contact with him would be limited, it was a spiritless Christmas exchange. We celebrated Christmas with our then-fifteen-year-old son in a juvenile detention center for about sixty minutes. He could have virtually nothing, so we opted for a new pair of shoes (of his choosing) and a few assorted practical items. Christmas at Kids' Peace was even less enjoyable than Christmas at Perkins. Christmas is intended to be celebrated in family settings, not public restaurants or institutional settings.

The past year has been filled with emotional crevices. But this Christmas has been blessedly different.

A week ago our college sophomore son joined us at home following a tough, but academically successful, semester. He has been such a pleasure to be with this Christmas season, a stark contrast to our previous seven Christmas seasons with him. During the same week Kyle returned home we learned that our now-fifteen-year-old son John will be returning home permanently nearly two months earlier than expected. To watch John share this news with our church family two weeks ago ("I'm going to be home at the end of December for good. I'm the second person in all the years of McCrossan Boy's Ranch to complete the program in less than six months") rocked my soul. And two days ago we drove four hours to celebrate Christmas with Mike, our now-sixteen-year-old, in a new institutional setting. We arrived early Sunday evening (we left home on Christmas Day after our two worship service morning) and met with him in a living area at his group home. He opened the presents we brought for him and seemed very pleased. Until he opened the last envelope.

In that brief note we told Mike that we believed it was time for him to come home and that in a few minutes he would be packing his stuff, joining us at the Holiday Inn and then returning to our home. We were nervous about his response, because we have learned that Mike often saboutages good things.

With a surprised grin on his face, his response was one I could not have asked him to improve: "I wouldn't have had to have all the presents. Coming would have been enough."

It has been a very trying eighteen months. We have been separated from three of our children -- one for appropriate, positive reasons, and two for other reasons. It looks as though much of the difficulty of these months is now overshadowed by the possibility of something much better. And while we are not naive (fostering and adopting for nearly ten years has made us quite realistic) about the days ahead, we are certain of one thing, at least for this Christmas season.

We are together again. Just like it should be.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Grieving Lost Time

It has been nearly three weeks since I last blogged. My journey of the past eighteen days has included many pathways leading to the same major tributary, cynicism. A cynic is one who "is critical of the motives of others, a faultfinder," says worldreference.com.

For months (perhaps years now) I find myself plagued with questions about meaning and purpose. My longsuffering spouse has heard the near-nightly melancholy chorus too much lately. It goes something like this, "I'm not sure it really matters what we do in life. It seems to me that things will be what they will be, whether we do anything about it or not." In particular, I languish in my role as an adoptive parent as I observe the behaviors and responses of our children. When I observe positive, life-affirming actions I think to myself, "Well, they would have done that anyway." And when I experience negative, self-defeating actions I whine, "See. It doesn't really matter. It never did."

Confronted by my wife about my own abysmal thinking, I offer verbal provocation. There is, I tell her, a difference between reality and cynicism. Reality sees things as they are, while cynicism consigns the outcome to defeat no matter what. I can tell by the look in her eye that she is not nearly so convinced as I seem to be; "you are becoming cynical" is the look I receive.

And when she questions why I view the world as I do, I am often bereft of an answer. Don't misunderstand; I am not silent. I offer multiple sentences of reasons why I think the way I do. But these are not answers.

I am beginning to believe that I am less a cynic hell-bound to prove how senseless life can be, and that instead I might be a muse grieving lost time. Especially as an adoptive father I grieve the lost time. I grieve that of our oldest son's nineteen years, we were able to spend less than seven with him in our home. I grieve that we will have few good years with our sixteen-year-old son who has now been out of our home for more than a year, and whose return looks unlikely. I grieve even for our youngest sons, who have been with us most of their lives. What was it like to bring them home from the hospital? Did anyone have a shower for their birthmoms at the announcement of their pregnancies? What was it like to hear their first shrill cry as oxygen coursed through their lungs for the first time?

In the midst of the joy (and there is more joy than I can ever name), who will remember the time that was lost? Who will grieve what could have been and recollect that our children had lives before we ever knew them? Who will step into the mysterious tangle of life we call "family" to identify the residual pain?

And can this task be accomplished without descending into despondency or utter disillusionment? Time, lost and regained, will tell.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Last Gasp of Autumn

True to my midwestern roots and current experience, I am often preoccupied with the weather. I'm not sure if this fixation holds true in other parts of the country or not, but here in the upper midwest weather seems always to be a subject of interest. Perhaps this orientation stems back to the agricultural roots of the region, or perhaps there is little else to think or talk about, but for me my natural surroundings ground me spiritually and emotionally.

I awakened this morning in the predawn darkness of my "day off." After letting our dog Gizmo out for his morning visit to the trees I showered and dressed and then went into one of our boys' bedrooms to wake up our ten-year-old. This is always a tempestuous encounter because Tony is not exactly a morning person. Sitting on the edge of his bed I jostled his curly blond hair and said, "Tony, God has given us a beautiful morning. Look at the sunrise." Through the window I could see the red- and yellow-streaked sky cracking through the morning murkiness. In response to my invitation to awaken, Tony responded, "Dad, let me finish my crossword first." My response must have been muttered surprise, because he followed up with indignance, "In my dream. The crossword is in my dream."

I smiled to myself at the innocence of childhood. I can't remember the last time one of my dreams was contenting or interesting enough to want to continue with it a little longer. Within a few seconds and with my persistent annoyance Tony finally arose a few minutes later. I coached him through his morning crabbiness to get dressed, brush his teeth and comb his hair. Three of his brothers were soon ready, so by 7:20 we were in the car on the way to school. In the 2-minute drive to school (usually we don't give them a ride, but this morning I was on my way to office to do some reading and decided to drop them off at school on my way) I revelled in the morning's autumnal beauty and reminded the boys that this would be a record-setting temperature day (forecast is for 70+ degrees in southwestern Minnesota in November ... really unusual), followed by much colder weather.

Our eleven-year-old son (most recent addition to our family and born in Guatemala) said, "Why dad? Why colder?" I explained how this would be the last gasp of autumn and that winter is just around the corner. Once again I reflected on the joy of childhood. When the first question of the morning is why does it get colder in November in Minnesota, you know the day isn't going to be so bad.

I am reminded this morning that as a father of a family continuously growing older, these days of childhood innocence are fleeting. These years, like today's last gasp of autumn, will soon be the substance of remembrance, so for today, for even this one twenty-four hour period of time, I think I'm going to enjoy it while I have it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Microcosm of Diversity

This past weekend I helped chaperone a group of seven middle-schoolers at a JUMYs (Junior United Methodist Youth) gathering for our Annual Conference (the geographical designation for United Methodist churches, in our case, Minnesota). Because I know these youth pretty well (I've watched them group up over the nearly seven years I've been their pastor and now they are actively engaged in our confirmation process which I teach), I am a bit oblivious to how unique a group they are.

In fact, I wouldn't have even thought about it much, except for what one of the main stage speakers had to say. The speaker is young, musically gifted and easy to listen to. It's not surprising that he is a popular speaker for teenagers across the country. Telling us about his life as the third of three children, he was humorously reflecting that sometimes the last child is "forgotten." In his case, he came upon baby books for two older siblings, but didn't find one for himself. Asking his mother, she responded, "By the time you came along we were way beyond that" (or words to those effect), to which the speaker said, "And now you know why I sometimes thought I was adopted."

As the adoptive father of ten children, I became immediately internally defensive. While his comments were not meant to be derisive or hurtful, I wondered how many of those in the crowd of 900+ had been touched by adoption and how his words may have been damaging. I have wrestled with his comment for several days now and have decided to let it go and chalk it up to ignorance on his part. After all, adopted children do have memories, they do have baby books, they do have memory books; they are not a simple commodity added to family as an afterthought, as his naive comment suggested.

His comment spurred me, though, to realize the diversity in the group I and two other adults were chaperoning. Right away I recognized that three of the seven kids had been adopted as older children (two of them my own children, one from another family whom we influenced to adopt older children). These three children are all children of color: one African-American, one Mexican-American and one Guatemalan-America. Of the remaining four kids, only two come from a "traditional" two-parent family home. The other two kids are being raised by single mothers with at least one other sibling. Even we chaperones were a diverse group: one single mother (divorced after nearly twenty years of marriage), one married mother who has a professional life (she is a physician), and one married father (me).

As this awareness began to dawn upon me, I realized how fortunate I am. In the sea of white faces (this is, after all, Minnesota, where even in the midst cultural changes we are overwhelmingly a white group) at this major middle school church gathering we were a microcosm of diversity. It made me feel good to know that through the ethos and spirit of my denomination and the local church I pastor, we are a place of inclusivity, a taste of what God's realm is. Not only do I as a pastor talk about the gift of diversity, but as a person and as a community of faith we are beginning to reflect that value.

What began as an irritation to me (the misperception of what adoption really is like) became an opportunity to see something bigger.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"It's the Economy, Stupid"

The 1992 Clinton campaign was able to maintain focus (and eventual electoral success) by repeating this four-letter phrase (allegedly initiated by James Carville, one of Clinton's close advisors) frequently. And, lest you fear reading furter, this blog is not a political diatribe. It does, however, create an opportunity for me to recreate the phrase for my use. My contention is that much of the misunderstanding afoot between social service workers and their clients (read this as you will; it could include "older children" waiting to be adopted, their birth parents, or the adoptive families in which they will live) has to do with socio-economics. So, I might say it this way: "It's the socio-economics. Duh." [I would prefer to refrain from salaciously attributing "stupid" to social services professionals].

Here is what I mean. In the USA there are basically three socio-economic groups: (1) those living in poverty, (2) those who are middle class, and (3) those who are wealthy. For more on understanding poverty see Ruby Payne's A Framework for Undersatnding Poverty or her website at: http://ahaprocess.com/

Payne's work should be required reading for all social services professional and all adoptive parents of older children. She masterfully describes the mindset of those experiencing poverty (whether generational or situational). Although she does not reference adoption in her work, there are several principles that I extrapolate as an adoptive parent of older children.

Principle #1: Almost without exception older adopted children come from an experience of poverty. By very definition, neglect (of whatever variety ... physical, social, emotional, spiritual, mental, medical) is an outcome of poverty. When there is not enough of whatever is needed, you find poverty.

Principle #2: Most older children will not be adopted by those already in poverty, nor by those who are wealthy. It's fairly apparent that those already subsisting in deprivation are not in a position to adopt an older child. And those who are wealthy and interested in adoption are typically seeking (and can pay the high costs associated with) the "perfect infant."

Principle #3: Most older children will be adopted by middle-class persons. I surmise that many middle class people who choose to adopt older children have themselves experienced some version of "poverty" early in their own lives. Because these parents understand the grinding pain of lack and have discovered the opportunities middle class living offer, they are inclined to want to reach out to others, often the most vulnerable, society's children.

Principle #4: Middle class families who adopt older children import into their lives an experience of poverty. Middle class parents adopting children whose experience of life has been of lack and a survival mentality will face inevitable hurdles. Payne does an excellent job in identifying those value clashes, including the role of relationships (people are possessions to the poverty-stricken), the way discipline is administered (the poverty mindset assumes no behavior will change; the focus is upon forgiveness and penance, following some form of physical discipline; the reward is food); how money is handled (the poverty environment lacks a motivation to save money, but to spend immediately because you don't know how long you will have it this time).

Principle #5: Social services workers are middle class persons with a middle class agenda. By very definition a social services worker is middle class. He or she will have, at minimum, a college degree, and will typically earn (though it may not seem like it at times) more than an individual living in poverty. The social services system is built upon a middle class value system ... responsibility, cleanliness, self-sufficiency.

Principle #6: Because a middle class adoptive family imports (with the adoption of older children) a poverty mindset into their lives, social services professionals may make some erroneous assumptions.

Erroneous assumption "A": This family has no business adopting this/these older child/children. When the social worker visits and experiences the culture class between poverty and middle class values, the assumption is that the adoptive family is somehow ill-equipped to care for these "special needs" children. This assumption may arise without regard to the adoptive family's excellent references, clean background checks and appropriate home study, all of which generally affirm middle class values (whether that is good or not is another blog for another time).

Erroneous assumption "B": The adopted child/ren are deliteriously affected by such a placement. Social services professionals may not understand that transforming the socio-economic vantage point of previously neglected children is a long process. It is arduous, and it will take the resources of many committed people and systems for any success to accrue. Well-intended, intelligent, committed, middle class parents need the support, not the criticism or disapproval, of the social services system in this process of transformation. Bottomline: children coming to middle-class families with a history of neglect have the best chance for moving away from generational poverty in a family with personal and community resources (mental, emotional, spiritual, as well as material). Long-term foster care and/or institutional settings do little more than displace the eventual return to poverty. If society's goal is assisting the poverty-stricken children to a life of responsibility and self-sufficiency, the best chance of that happening comes through primary relationships with those (adoptive parents, in this case) who form the fabric of our society's "safety net."

Erroneous assumption "C": Family size and poverty go hand-in-hand. As the father of a large family (we have ten adopted children), I continue to be surprised by the assumption that large family = deprivation. The fact is that large family is not a middle-class value. The middle-class value is roughly equivalent to the number of people one can comfortably seat in a mini-van, which allows for two parents and four (five at the most, and even five is questionable) children. Moving beyond that number violates some unspoken rule of middle class living (see Payne for more on the "rules" of socio-economic condition). Social service professionals may project their own feelings ("I don't know how you do it; I have two kids, and I just can't keep up with them"), may betray their own need for freedom ("You do how many loads of laundry a day?") or may voice their own unspoken fears ("It must cost a fortune to feed that many kids").

Erroneous assumption "D": Social services professionals may assume that the adoptive parents are as poverty-stricken in mentality as the children they have adopted. I have personally experienced this attitude too many times to assume it is unusual. As a well-educated (bachelor's and master's degrees with half of a doctoral coursework completed), well-placed professional in my community and vocation, it is insulting to be told, "We have gas vouchers so that you can visit your son" in foster care, or "We have some funding at the county level so that your family can take him out to a movie." Because one's child is in pain and manifests a poverty-orientation does not mean that the adoptive family is the source of that outlook.

Principle #7: Social services professionals need to see adoptive parents as resources in the goal of transitioning children from (generational or situational) poverty into lives of responsibility and self-sufficiency. It is frustrating for adoptive parents to be seen as drains on the economic resources of a county's social services sytem, or to be treated as "hostile" or in some way at odds with the goals of social services. Adoptive parents see ourselves as being significant partners in the goal of social transformation. Accord us the respect and the honor that rightly belong to those who give their lives to save the world one child at a time.

So, my contention is that much of conflict between adoptive parents of older children and their respective social services agencies comes because of a lack of understanding of socio-economic backgrounds, and the inevitable clash when poverty and middle class values come face to face.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

No Longer and More Complete

It has been a day of disarray, and each of us in our family has felt it. I felt it when I left the office early to do a few errands in a nearby larger city. It's not what I usually do on Tuesday afternoons. And when I picked up after school our fifteen-year-old son who currently resides at a Boy's Ranch, I felt it. Arriving home thirty-five minutes later I was barraged with questions about what clothes we would be wearing and, since I am the self-designated family presser of clothing, took a mound of shirts and pants to care for. I don't usually do that on Tuesday afternoons. By 5:00 PM when nearly all of us were together from various destinations, we all began to feel it. From the shrill, screeching, "No, I'm not going to wear a white shirt, and you can't make me," to "I hate this; why do we have to do this?" our late afternoon moments continued to fragment into early evening frustrations.

We changed our regular norm of life, and we are all paying. A typical evening in our home goes something like this. At three o'clock the first of the kids come flying through the door, with a muttered greeting, "What's for snack?" I'm usually home by that time, but if not Claudia handles the initial onslaught of post-educational frenzy. Snacks are distributed, the school day's stories recounted and I answer, "What's for dinner tonight?" at least eight to ten separate times. The kids settle in to finish their homework, their chore and to spend some time in electronic stimulation (email, Playstation or television). We eat promptly at 6:00, begin to clean up by 6:30 and by 7:00 find ourselves occupied with individual interests until bed time, which begins progressively at 8:45 or 9:00. By 10:00 we are all typically in bed, in various states of rest for the hours ahead.

But not tonight. Tonight, you see, it was time for our family to gather at the church for the church directory pictures. And this small change in our family's routinized life has created paroxysms of chaos.

Six years ago we did a similar thing. It was our first fall in a new pastoral appointment, and our kids were so much younger. Our youngest son was three, and our oldest son was twelve. Tonight our youngest son is nine, our oldest son is nearly nineteen, and we are missing our sixteen-year-old son completely. (He is currently "on run," which is social services jargon for "absent without leave," from his most recent residential placement).

It's funny how similar this experience is to that of six years ago. In spite of our children's age changes, the chaotic stressors related to changing the routine are as real tonight as they were then. There are similarities, but the mos glaring reality of all is that we are no longer complete as once we were. In a strange, paradoxical way, we are no longer and (yet) more complete tonight. We are missing two of the sons who were with us six years ago; they will not be in the picture this time around, and in years to come, we will always know exactly why. Ironically, they are birth brothers, though at this time in their lives, in very different places. Kyle, our second-year collegian, is pursuing a future with hope, while his birth brother, Mike, our familial renegade, is pursuing an unknown future riddled with the possibility of devastating failure. But I digress.

We are no longer and (yet) more complete tonight, because in the picture this time around there are two children standing with us who were not ours six years ago, our two sons from Guatemala, and our second-oldest son who was born in Minneapolis. So, it is a night of mixed emotions for me. Knowing that we will never again be complete in the same way we once were, and yet acknowleding that we are more complete than we have ever been is a strange realization. It is similar to what Christian theologians call "realized eschatology," the sense that in Christ all of history has been changed dramatically, but even the Christ-event has not yet been fully realized by humanity.

I yearn for the day when once again we might be fully complete as a family once again, but I am enough of a realist to know that day may never again come. The muddled ambiguity of a continuously changing family system is a painful reality. And I'm not sure what to make of it.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Thin Places, Part Two

In an earlier blog I mentioned thin places, those locations in which we experience the depth of our spiritual lives. The ancients thought of those places as thin precisely because it is in these moments where we feel most spiritually alive.

For more than six years now we have lived in a part of the upper midwest where we are surrounded with rolling hills and prairie. There are few obvious signs of natural water (the county in which we reside is rightly called "Rock," because there are no natural lakes here), and vegetation is low-lying. There are a few trees now, some hundred plus years since non-Native settlement, but it doesn't take much to imagine the scenescape of yesteryear with mile after mile of gently undulating prairie grasses and rises. Six years ago I believed we were moving to a geographically desolate place, but I have now come to understand my surroundings to be a source of deep spiritual vitality.

As often as I can, ideally daily, I set out for the one-mile drive to the Blue Mounds State Park, where I take our walk-ever-loving dog Gizmo for a several-mile hike. On a recent early morning we arrived in the darkness of pre-dawn. Although, or maybe because, the topography is wide open there is at that hour an eerie sense that one is not alone. Shirking the need for a flashlight we penetrated the darkness and walked the steps, familiar now after years of pedestrian travel. In the crisp October air I could hear little beyond the tittering of Gizmo's nails on the pavement and the jangling of his collar tags. I could see little beneath me, nor little around me, shrouded in darkness as I was. But to look up is to experience majesty. The clear early morning darkness flashes with the brilliance of a starry host. Non-astronomer that I am, I find contentment in identifying the Big Dipper and an occasional satellite orbiting the earth. The morning I speak of, however, offered me the additional spectacle of a falling star. What we non-science types revel in as a fading shower of brilliance is what science calls the end; a "falling star" is really a dying star.

In that thinly spaced early morning moment, I am reminded of the ebb and flow of life. Even the inanimate matter we call "stars" have a life span; there is an origin, there is a decline, and there is an end. It is the lesson we learn from living, breathing things like plants and pets. It is what we learn in human relationships. But even it's not the end of the story. It cannot be.

Even as I pondered these thoughts the eastern skyline was beginning to tinge pink. As the inchoate darkness of night shrivels away, it is replaced with the warmth and promise of day. And as the morning light suffuses the horizon with possibility the sparkling grandeur of the celestial guardians fades from sight. Day by day we experience what Christian faith calls resurrection, the possibility for something new to arise from that which no longer is.

And day by day a new story emerges in this journey we call life.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Love Must Be Particular

I'll admit it. I'm a bibliophile. Somewhere in the distant past I fell in love with words and print media. The words of my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Belgum, on one of my quarter report cards pretty well sum it up: "Bart is a voracious reader." Little has changed in the past twenty-plus years. As much as I love electronic technology (my iPod often accompanies me, and I would be lost without wireless access to the internet and its profusion of resources), I enjoy little else more than picking up a book that might interest me.

My interests are wide and varied. I will buy almost anything that relates to the postmodern shift in thinking (especially as it relates to theological and philosophical inquiry). I continue to be intrigued by Christology (the theological term for the study of Jesus Christ) and enjoy the recent re-emergence of thoughtful investigation into the "historical Jesus." Books exploring the spiritual connections in adoptive family life occupy a growing shelf in my office. And occasionaly I even pick up a volume uncharacteristic of my interests, like the new book I'm reading, Loves Me: Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love (authored by Laura A. Smit, published by Baker Academic 2005; ISBN 080102997X).

I am only twenty-some pages into the book, so I cannot vouch for its remaining content, but I am struck by what she says on page 26, where she reflects upon the assertion that "God is love," and if God is love, what does that mean ethically for our relationships in life. She says, "When we love, we give ourselves to someone else. We cannot give of ourselves in general. Love must always be particular."

Excursus: I have three priorities in my life, in this order: (1) Hearing and responding to God; (2) Loving and caring for my spouse and children; (3) pursuing a sense of missional vocation [I'll have to blog on that some other time]. So, nearly everything I experience or read takes me through this triune panoply of existence. It is with priority number two that this blog entry relates.

In my continuing work (and it is work) as an adoptive parent, I reflect upon Smit's words, that love must be "particular." Disjointed, disembodied, disengaged relational experience is not "love." These relational experiences could be any number of "things" -- a quest for survival, the need for security, an attempt at identity -- but it really is not love.

And so my mind is intuitively drawn to children who manifest reactive-attachment disorder and those who love them. I have too little success or experience to proffer a suggestion as how to "love" a child with RAD, but I suspect it has a lot to do with particularity. An adoptive parent who chooses to love a child unable to reciprocate is a grueling, gut-wrenching mode of existence. This is, I suppose, "unrequited" love in a significant fashion.

This may very well be what separates the "professional" from the "parent." The therapist, the social worker, the treatment facility staff do not "love" the attachment-disordered child. Their task is to create an environment in which the child can find personal success and, hopefully, renewed connection to his or her family. The professional, in the course of his or her vocational life, will be responsible for hundreds of similar kids; professional integrity and personal health require a professional not to "love" their clients. The professional cannot be particular in their expression of "love."

On the other hand, the parent must be the emodiment of particular love. The mother or father who loves his or her child loves this child. The parent does not "love kids," he or she loves a particular kid. It is the parents' task to know the child deeply and to be committed purposefully. The parent must be particular in his or her expression of "love."

Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to be a parent of a reactive-attachment disordered child. For the RAD child is the precisely the persons in his or her life that cannot be particular in their expression of "love" -- the professionals -- that they feel most allied with. Because of their deficits, RAD children "love" those most who care about them (ultimately) least. To be the particular focus of a loving adult is so strange from an RAD child that it is threatening and intimidating. Parents, wth their loving particularity, are consequently excised from the life of the RAD child, precisely because they do love and will continue to love, whether the love is reciprocal or not.

Professionals, note this: your task is not to form an alliance with your RAD client; your task is to facilitate continuing alliances with his or her primary caretaker(s). Your most helpful and fruitful role is to identify yourself as the emotional midwife of sorts, the person who helps the parents bring to birth the attachment, the reciprocal love, that humans (especially attachment-disordered children) need in order to have any semblance of a balanced life. In fact, counter-intuitively, professionals need to love the healthy parents seeking the best interest of their child more than to "love" the unhealthy, attachment-disordered child.

I will be interested to read what the author has to say about unrequited love and whether there are insights for parents who are seeking to nurture children for whom reciprocal love is no more accessible than the physics equation of a post-doctoral fellow.

Adoptive parents do not give of themselves in general; we give of ourselves in particular. It is this specificity that inflicts the greatest pain, and it is this particularity that tantalizes with the possibility of what might one day be.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Biggest Loser

It is human nature, I suppose, to do with our lives those things that promise a degree of success. I have yet to meet a couple intending to marry, spend the time and money for the ceremony, and then plan to divorce a few months later. A college-bound high school senior with a 3.0 average doesn't take the time to apply to Harvard for obvious reasons. The average McDonald's employee isn't expected to send a curriculum vitae in order to be considered for a university Presidential opening. Even though we may take risks in our decision-making processes (and should, really take risks in order to discover our full potential), most of us are insightful enough to recognize the provenance of our lives at a particular time and place.

Occasionally, though, we take bigger risks. The greater the risk, the more potential for great, surprising joy ... and the greater the possibility that we may lose with deep, sustained pain. Parenting is one of those risks. Whether forming a family through birth or by adoption, the risks of parenting hold the potential for deep, abiding delight or paroxysms of painful disappointment.

For parents who adopt older children, the risk is even steeper. Child development theorists are clear that the first months and years of a child's life are foundational. By the time we adopt an older child, much of his or her future has already been set into motion, the secret recesses of early life hidden from our view. I'm beginning to think that adopting older children (who are, by very definition, "special needs," no matter what the on-paper diagnoses may indicate) is reckless parenting.

I didn't always think that way. There was a time when I believed adoptive parenting was a noble, socially just, admirable opportunity. I believed that parents who really cared, who were intelligent and educated and committed could form the direction of a child's life. Any child's life. There was a time when I thought that the social services system saw adoptive parents as partners in providing the best interest of the child. Any child's life. There was a time when I assumed neighbors would see adoptive parents as society's assets. I really believed they care more about raising children than raising grass. I am discovering that I was wrong.

Today we met with our 16 year-old son's social worker who apprised us of her plan. Her plan is that he will remain in permanent foster care unti he is 18. She will do "all [she] can to encourage his independent living skills" in the next 18 months. She will use his $300 annual allotment to provide him with opportunities to become independent. It was hard for me not to cynically laugh and sneer at her well-intentioned but naive plans to give the son we adopted (to prevent his living in foster care) the chance to become successful and independent. When he turns 18 it will be our door he comes to, not hers, and he will return to us with less attachment than he had when he left. We will be forced into an ethically ambiguous confrontation, and our parental commitment to one who has used and been used in the system will be tested in an extreme way.

Sadly, we have all lost in the past few months. The social services system has lost, unless its goal has been to enhance the perceived power of a narcissistic personality or further degrade the attachment of a reactive-attachment child. He has lost, because his intended goal (to find independence and fewer guidelines) will not come to fruition. And we as parents and a family have lost, because we never adopted Mike to so that he could live a solitary life of desparate existence.

So, who is the biggest loser? The social services system? The child? The parents and family?

Yes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Thin Spaces


I am told that Celtic spirituality refers to thin places, those locations -- often geographic -- where we feel most spiritually alive and most closely connected to our Creator. One of most enjoyable parts of my spiritual pilgrimage is discovering those thin places, especially when I travel to new locales. Two weeks ago I traveled to Seattle with my mother and aunt to be with my sister and her husband at the defense of her Ph.D. thesis. Both Justin and Tara now have their doctoral work complete in botany, so we spent much of our time together exploring the natural beauty of Washington State. The stark beauty of the northern Pacific Ocean is exhilirating. Different from the warmth of the Gulf or the south Atlantic, the waves off the coast of northwestern Washington are cool and regal. Experiencing the wide expanse of the horizon while giving attention to the intricate details of marine life remind me of our Creator, vast and limitless, yet intricately involved in the fabric of life.

I was especially enchanted by the starfish which cling to the sides of slippery, algae-covered rocks. In the midst of numerous barnacles and anemones, there is the occasional starfish, often camouflaged black and white. The starfish to the right, though, is a distinctive, bright orange. As we walked late one afternoon on the beach, we watched the tide dissipate and came upon this microcosm of marine biodiversity. Amidst many other life forms, this starfish was firmly ensconced on its protective cleft. Although we did not attempt a vigorous removal (my sister's ecological heightened sensitivites prevented such a scurrilous attack upon nature), we did tug at the starfish. It was unmoving, firmly attached to its secure place of protection. It is a powerful natural example of a deep spiritual truth ... that in the vicissitudes of life, with the pains and challenges of existence incessantly lapping at us, we humans can find a place of secure comfort, a Rock to provide us security.

Stay tuned for more thin spaces to come.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I Was Never A Soldier

When I graduated from high school in 1982 there were few of my friends who saw military service as a viable option. Perhaps the wounds of Vietnam were still too fresh, or perhaps it was the general sense of psuedo-security that enshrouded our nation at that time. My mother always wanted me to be a military man. Against my protests she would rejoin, “But you would look so nice in a uniform, and I would be so proud of you” It’s funny how life turns out, really, because now at least once a week I wear a “uniform” of sorts, although my field of engagement is within the community of faith, and the battles, while less obvious than those in Iraq, are possibly as hostile sometimes. In the past twenty-some years, I have become much more pacifistic in my political views, so that war and its related barbarities are morally offensive to me. I was never a solider.

I was never a solider, and to date I have no son or daughter who is a solider. I well remember the night three years ago when our oldest son (who at that time was fifteen) bounded up the stairs to tell us he was going to join the National Guard. We were a bit stunned, actually, since he is not exactly inclined toward altruism or high-minded devotion. I said, “Well, Kyle, you know we’re about to go to war” (this was on the eve of Iraq). “Yeah, but I’ll never get sent to Iraq, Dad.” “Don’t be so sure about that, son.” We argued the point for a few minutes, and finally I said, “What’s the real reason you want to be in the National Guard?” “Because I can make a lot of money. I can have a car by next summer.” After a thirty-second attempt to explain why he should not trade the next ten years of his life for a used vehicle, I gave up the conversation. After he left the room Claudia said, “We should just tell him we think it’ a good idea. Then he won’t join up for sure.”

So, the next morning both Claudia and I in individual conversations affirmed Kyle’s decision to become a National Guardsman. By the time he came home from school that night there was no chance he would join the National Guards. Ever.

Like I said, I was not a solider, nor do I have a son or daughter (yet) who is a solider. But I am a pastor of a congregation that has two soliders. Yesterday was their last day in their hometown. They are young men whom I’ve watched grow up over the past seven years. I remember these young men when they were barely adolescents. Cody was in my first confirmation class, and I remember with clarity the Sunday morning when I laid my hands upon his head and said, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born of water and Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple all the days of your life.” And I remember most vividly, and more recently, the moment in worship this past Sunday when I asked Cody to join us at the front of the sanctuary so that we could pray for him. I invited worshipers to join us, and we were engulfed with a group of supporting, praying people. Together we laid hands on Cody once again, and as I prayed, we wept and released him into God’s care, that he might do what he has been trained and prepared to do in Iraq.

Andrew is the other young man departing for Iraq. Our first summer here I met a thin, blond attention-deficit kid that often tried my patience. Confirmation classes (three years’ worth, mind you) with him and eight of his male friends (plus two girls) were always filled with intrigue. But time and the faithful care of his parents have resulted in a mature young man. He graduated with our son Kyle from high school, and most recently has been our youngest son’s Personal Care Attendant (PCA). He did an excellent job with Dominyk, and I am still hearing from Dom how Andrew showed him how to fix a car, accompanied him to find crawdads in the mud and regularly fished with him. We prayed with Andrew a few weeks ago, too, as a congregation. With tears and pride we asked God to care for him.

Tonight these young twenty-something men will say goodbye, yet again, to family members. Tomorrow they will be transported to a base in the South where they will receive focused training, and in months they will find themselves in Iraq where they will do what they’ve been trained to do.

I was never a solider. I do not (yet) have a son or daughter who is a solider. But I am a pastor to two soliders, and I am proud of what good parenting, a faithful congregation and a supportive community have made of these two young men’s lives. Make us proud, boys!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

When You Were Born, You Cried

I have been traveling a lot the past two weeks. I first had a three-day clergy retreat, then I traveled on to Minneapolis for a two-day academy training, and the next day departed for Seattle for five days. Returning from Seattle I had a final meeting in Minneapolis and then returned home two days ago. I enjoy the opportunities to interact with different people at different times and phases of life, and travel is almost always a way for me to gain perspective. My most recent trip is not an exception.

At my three-day clergy retreat I learned a new, haunting summary of life and death that I have found enchanting. The beat is primal, pounded on a side drum, replicating the human heartbeat. The origin, our musical leader told us, is either Celtic or Native American (she wasn't certain which). The words, sung in a minor key, are these:

When you were born, you cried,
And the earth rejoiced!
So live your life, that when you die,
The world cries and
You rejoice!

These two markers of existence – birth and death – are perplexing ones for most of us. No adult remembers the events surrounding his or her birth. We might remember details that parents or others who knew us at that fragile stage of life have conveyed, but we do not have personal memory of our entrance into the human community. Neither, I surmise, will we have personal memory of our departure from the human community. These bookend events, significant as they are, are not ones we have full control or remembrance of. We can only decide what to do with what happens between the beginning and the ending.

It’s the living of our lives that is most perplexing. Most of us find ways to do each day what we need to do. Self-imposed deadlines or others-imposed expectations cause us to act. Our western society has excelled in doing. In our experience as US Americans we have been taught the virtue of work and persistence. The great figurs of our American mythology have been doers … the railraod magnates of two centuries ago, the revolutionary idealists of three centuries ago, the explorers of four centuries ago. We have tremendous cultural regard for those who have “done.”

But what about those who excel in “being.” You know who I mean. They are not the individuals who will be glorified in a history textbook your great-grandchildren will one day read. Typically “be-ers” are not flashy or memorable in some sort of project completion way. They are, rather, those who sow deeply into the lives of others. So deeply, in fact, that their presence may not be acknowledged by those who are the recipient of a “be-ers” gift.

I suspect many parents – by birth or by adoption – fall into this category. The ceaseless hours of endurance, patient or otherwise; the consistent presence, stable or otherwise; the moments of persistence, arduous or pleasant … these are features of parental life that a child seldom sees or acknowledges. Yet it these, and other, salient qualities that provide the foundation for a child’s successful future. It is in so living our lives that we grow a sense of “being” in our son or daughter. It is this sense of “being” that is the greatest gift a parent can offer a child; the irony, of course, is that when it is offered well it is acknowledged least.

In fact, it may not be until that day of our life’s ultimate culmination, when the earth cries and we rejoice, that we understand the value of sincere, authentic “being.”

Friday, October 07, 2005

How A Dream Dies

I’ll never forget that day. Many times I have rehearsed the same scene in my mind, that day in late December 1997. Claudia and I drove many miles from our hotel to the mountainous rural location, a foster home where our to-be son had lived for the longest period of his foster care experience. Entering their kitchen and glancing around the table it was easy to spot him. He was eight, eating blueberry pancakes with a number of other kids at a large table. His carrot-red hair and broad smile were dead give-aways that this was the kid we would be taking home with us a few days later.

The social worker had told us he had challenges, but I don’t think she really knew how deep they were. Who could? His foster mom encouraged us by saying, “Well, he doesn’t scream as much as he used to; he’s made real progress. And we’ve worked really hard to improve his reading ability.” And I thought, “Well, what this kid needs is stability and people to really love him. That will make the difference.”

We hd heard all about his early years of neglect. His drug-hazed mother, his abusive father. His six or seven prior foster placements, all within the period of two years. We thought we knew what this might be like. We were naïve and spirited and hopeful and optimistic. The dream of providing a child with a better life, a hopeful opportunity and consistent security enveloped me in a cloud of certainty. We could certainly do better for him than others had in his past.

I’m not sure when the dream began to fade. Maybe it was the first time he spent more than an hour screaming at the top of his lungs, rocking himself into a cortisol-induced sense of pseudo-self-care. Or maybe it was the tenth or the fiftieth or the one hundredth time he responded in the same way to anything he interpreted as fear or threat. Who can count those episodes with accuracy after all this time?

Or maybe the optimism began to ebb away after observing time after time the consistently negative interactions with his older birth brother, a brother he had ensconced as hero, but a brother who wanted nothing but to be left alone. The numerous verbal attacks, the periodic negative physical interactions in which the younger was subdued by his elder brother’s aggression continued to poke holes in my hope.

Did the vision become blurred when he and his friend contaminated the school’s ventilation system with pepper spray? Were my aspirations dampened when time after time I held his raging, underdeveloped body in my secure embrace, assuring him of our love and devotion, only to be cursed, spit upon and pushed away. How many times did I hear, “You’re not my real dad. You can’t tell me what to do. I wish I had never been adopted. This family sucks.”

Was my hope diminished when he began sneaking out at night without our knowledge? When night after night he skipped sports practice in order to hang out with friends more troubled than he? Did my confidence in the future seep away when time after time I would drive to the sheriff’s office to pick him up, to reunite with our family after his self-imposed exile of two, three, six days?

The fact is that through all of those arduous, painful, self-denying moments the dream remained alive. There were moments, of course, when the possibilities seemed questionable, when I doubted, when I wondered. But the dream lived, quietly, confident that somehow, at sometime my investment would matter. While our adoptive parenting roles were not well understood by those around us, at least I felt respected. I felt that the system appreciated what we were attempting to do, that the pain was worth the tacit recognition by others that we were doing a noble thing.

No, the dream was alive through all those years.

But the dream began to die when our recommendations and preferences as parents were disregarded by those in the power structure. The dream began to die when as an adoptive parent of an out-of-control child I had to watch a video designed for abusive and neglectful parents about how I “needed to follow the social workers plans” or I “would risk the termination of parental rights.” When a young social worker no more than twenty-five years old is empowered to disregard the insight of experienced adoptive parents with higher levels of education than she, the dream began to die. When a system finally caves into the demands of an attachment-disordered sixteen-year-old and expects the parents to be positive and supportive, the dream dies. When, somehow in the social services process, the adoptive parent moves from partner to pariah, from player to observer, the dream dies.

How does a dream die? It dies not because of a child’s behavior or defiance (after all, prepared adoptive parents expect that); it dies when respect, nobility and partnership are excised from the human equation. Social service systems were never designed to raise children; families are by nature the places to raise children. And so, once again, the system – inanimate, impersonal, unhearing – raises its grimacing face of victory as the remaining vapors of a dream gasp in defeat.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

It Might Not Be What We Think It Is

Tonight I am in Kansas City, nearly finished with a conference sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education. Our congregation was selected to participate as a congregational partner (amongst 40 or so others from across the country and across denominations) in becoming a catalyst for "cultivating a culture of call." This carefully alliterated phrase needs to be unpacked a bit. The goal is to create opportunities in communities of faith for individuals to discover what God intends for them. We are talking with others about ways to encourage people to hear God's voice and discern direction in life. For most mainline churches this is a colossal challenge. We have become institutionalized and mechanistic in our operations, while we need to move in the direction of organic growth and relational depth. It's the difference between church-by-committee or church as community together.

Anyway, part of the focus of our time together is how to help teenagers and young adults find spiritual direction and wholeness in life. Tonight's speaker, Melissa Wiginton, was especially good. She spoke of the ways our culture has preyed upon children and youth to create consumers. The average teenager will spend more time shopping this week than s/he will reading, talking with parents and family members or in worship. Each year over $300 billion of disposable income is spent by teenagers and young adults. We have been seduced by our culture to believe that consuming will fill an innate need within us.

Wiginton postulates that teenagers and young adults today have been numbed to the realities of the world's real condition (in need), are focused upon the need to achieve, and have very little time for imagination, contemplation or thought. She then goes on to suggest that there are ways to resist this toxic sense of consumerism.

Specifically, she mentions, the need for personal connectivity. Children and youth need adults to initiate opportunities for connection which will extend cross-generationally. She asserts the need for youth to nurture an inner life. Developing a sense of wonder is also a corrective to rampant consumerism. The opportunity to be part of healing a broken world is another. Interestingly, she comments on the value spiritually grounded youth place upon ritual in life. Wiginton is clear in addressing the need: for our culture it is a spiritual crisis.

As I think about these qualities, I am reminded of the primary role parents have in their children's spiritual lives. I often am reluctant to phrase it this way, because many will immediately assume that I am referencing religious life. And, while religious life certainly should be predicated upon spiritual foundations, this is not always the case, as evidenced in the untold numbers of adults who are disenchanted with their religious roots (if they had any at all) or who have maintained a perpetual state of agnosticism in their lives.

The deepest hungers we humans manifest are spiritual at their foundational level. Perhaps that is what I find most perplexing about the adoption journey. So much of adoptive parents' time is spent in the task of healing the past we often find too few hours or energy to be proactive. Pondering ways to enhance our child's spiritual life is a luxury when the immediate concern is supervision to prevent violent or sexual acting out behaviors. Inspiring a sense of wonder in a hurt child, unable to trust at the primal level, is not on most adoptive parents' radar screens. Developing family rituals, or even connecting with the traditional rituals of a religious community, are virtually impossible for the adoptive parent already exhausted from navigating the bureaucratic processes of most social service agencies. Simply put, there is too little time for us to be forward-looking when we have years of neglect to wade through with our children.

I wonder, though, what kind of children we are developing when we exchange the immediate for a preferred future? What will our children decide is important to them when they leave our nests? Will they, like so much of American society, decide that reality and satisfaction come from buying and accumulating?

What would happen in our family systems, adoptive or not, if we invested our energy in nurturing a sense of spiritual selfhood in our children? What if, in addition to addressing the pains of the past, we could find a way to lead our children to a life of spiritual fulfillment? What if, in the final analysis, the very thing we think is a luxury to be sought one day when we have time (namely spiritual nurture) is the very thing that would help to relieve our anxieties of the moment?

What if the adoption journey is really more a spiritual trek than we realize?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It Still Doesn't Feel That Great

Claudia and I have two sons currently in residential treatment settings. The younger of the two, our recently-turned 15-year-old is doing quite well in his placement, and we are encouraged by his progress. The older of the two, our 16-year-old son, has had checkered progress. Amongst his challenges are FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder), ODD (oppositional definat disorder), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (the inability to see beyond oneself, to an extreme). While he is currently doing better, back in May he decided he would stay at the bottom as long as possible. He refused to accomplish his daily tasks, wouldn't attend school and spent much of his time pointing the finger of blame. If it wasn't the program's fault ("this is not the right program for me; just look, I'm not making any progress"), it was his parents' (Claudia's and my) fault ("If you really loved me you'd give me a second chance and get me out of this hell hole"). On days when blamed needed to be assigned elsewhere it was social services fault ("If I didn't have such a stubborn social worker, I'd be out of here by now"). In an attempt to create a move for himself four months ago he decided to attack another resident of the program. This resident pressed charges against him and today we were in court to see what would happen.

In the previous weeks our sixteen-year-old son alternately pleaded, threatened and cajoled any willing listener with his plight. His attempts at triangulation were met with stubborn resistance on the parts of all parties until he met his court-appointed attorney. Although the attorney represented our son specifically on the three misdemeanor charges against him, he decided to champion the cause of a juvenile "in an inappropriate setting."

This public defender took us into a small room prior to the hearing to sanctimoniously regale us with bits of parenting advice and concern that the reason (not the "excuse," he was quick to point out) for the altercation was because the setting was not appropriate for a kid like our son. We listened, Claudia filled in some blanks the attorney was not interested in hearing (such as our son's previous social services involvement, and the fact that we have been working closely with the social services agency in this case), and then we went into the courtroom.

In a previous conversation two weeks ago our son had told me that anything he discussed with his attorney was "between me and my attorney," so we have communicated little with him about their conversations. We had attempted to explain to our son over the past three months that the judge would not be interested in hearing about how a change of program would be his salvation. We indicated that the judge would want to know what happened in the specific matter before him, and that it was not a placement hearing. Our son, and evidently his attorney, decided to test the waters.

During the hearing the judge asked our son what he needed, since the current program wasn't "meeting his needs." "A foster home, maybe," was the response. His Honor was unhappy with this option. "What makes you think that a foster home is what you need? When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, who is going to be looking back at you? You. And it won't matter whether you're in [the facility] or a foster home or your parents' home. It's you that needs to decide to get your life together. You're wasting the best years of your life, do you understand that?"

Sadly, I am not convinced that our son did understand that. WIth his panoply of diagnoses, recalcitrance to change and consistent patterns of self-saboutage, I'm not sure this communicated well. The judge couldn't have been more supportive (in an indirect way) of our parenting efforts to hold our son accountable for his actions. We were pleased that in this situation our parental role was not eroded in the face of a juvenile player.

So, after accepting the county attorney's offer (that our son plead guilty to an assault charge in exchange for the two other charges being dropped, community service and a year's probation), the judge asked our son if there was anything else he needed to know. "Yeah, I don't want to go home" was our son's response. His Honor was controlled, but peeved. "Why is it that you don't want to go home?" "Because I don't think I would be successful," was our son's response. After little further exchange, His Honor simply said, "This is not a matter before the court at this time."

At that perfunctory end the court-appointed attorney looked at our son, said, "Do you have any questions?" and walked out the door. His task was complete. And once again our son had as his only true allies the two parents who have steadfastly refused to give up on him over the past seven years. WIthout words or eye contact our son walked away from us toward the treatment center escort. I patted him on the shoulder and said, "Goodbye, Mike. See you soon." There was no response.

I guess as parents we prevailed today. The court was not convinced that the environment is what caused our son to violate three statutes. The court-appointed attorney is history. The residential treatment escort did his job and returned Mike to "the unit." There is a consistent direction for our son's future. I guess we prevailed, but it still doesn't feel that great.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Why It Matters, Part 2

God has interesting way of helping me understand things. I'm not exactly an intellectual slouch. I read widely and across the disciplines. My college and graduate school educations have taught me the value of critical, objective thinking. Personality tests show that I am a high intuiter, which means that I have a "sense" of things even if the data isn't there to support the supposition. All that to say that for a smart enough, emotionally aware person, I sometimes need reminders about why adopting older children really matters.

In theory, of course, I have always maintained the value of caring for the most vulnerable in society. Claudia and I regularly contribute to Habitat for Humanity and other worthwhile humanitarian efforts. We teach our children the value of caring for others. But when theory departs and the reality hits, I am not always so thrilled with the implementation of socially just actions.

It's one thing to parent a child who has enough emotional health to express genuine gratitude. And it's rewarding to observe academic success. It's pleasant enough to see a son or daughter learn social skills. It always feels good for a parent to receive the accolades of teachers and other observer who say things like, "Wow. I don't know how you do what you do. I really admire that."

But it's another thing when doing a very good thing results in community scorn. When the county social services agency becomes not an ally in an effort to assist, but an adversary seeking to find a parental source of blame for deep-seated issues an older adoptive child presents. It's another thing to have someone from the community knock at the door and explain how his child's bicycle was stolen by your son. Or to have your place of employment (in my case, the church building) vandalized by angry sons. In those moments it's hard to see why it matters.

But just moments ago, God has again reminded me why it matters. Early this afternoon I received a stammering telephone call from a man who was passing through our county seat town wanting "to talk to a pastor." I invited him to stop by the church, knowing full well what kind of a conversation we would have. Because our church is the only one located downtown these days, and because our community is right on a major interstate in this part of the state, I often receive visitors seeking assistance as they pass through.

Ron arrived a few minutes later, parking his well-used bike in front of the church facility. I met him as he entered the doors. Like so many other passing-through visitors, Ron is eccentric. His front teeth are gapingly absent. His east-coast verbal patter was punctuated with stuttering. His backpack was in good shape and stuffed full of his (only) personal belongings. As we walked through the doors of our $2 million facility to the "Upper Room," I internally noted the contrasts, wondering what our conversation might hold.

We sat down and my guest told me his life story in less than fifteen minutes. Obviously well practiced, but authentic and lacking any guile, I found out that he grown up in Connecticut in an alcoholic family setting as an only child. His mother left the family while he was in his early teens, after which Ron's dad sought to raise him without success. By fifteen years of ago he was in a juvenile facility (because of his father's inability to care for him, not for legal reasons) and within a short period of time he learned his father had been killed in a drunk driving accident. He remained in state custody until the age of eighteen when he aged out of the system. With no siblings, no parents to speak of and no extended family, Ron began a journey he has now been on for over twenty years. His fifth grade education has served him well, but the lack of any social supports after his release from the system has done little to improve the conditions of his life. His journey is a literal one, lived on a bike seat traveling state to state day by day, week by week, month by month. He showed me battered business cards of churches and motels he had become acquainted with in the past months. Again and again his whiskered face brimmed with joy as he recounted his exploits and encounters with Christian people across the miles.

Before we prayed together, I said, "How can I be most helpful to you, Ron?" Well, he said, humor sparkling in his eyes, "How about a million dollars and a trip to Hawaii?" We laughed together, and I responded, "I wish I could do that. But I can't. I can offer you an overnight at a local motel and some cash for a meal tonight though." "That," he said with tears brimming in his eyes, "would be just great."

It shames me, really. It's shaming to know that one night in a motel and $16 in cash is enough to make a grown man weep. It shames me that as a society we did not find a way for teenager Ron to have a mom or dad through adoption that could have prevented his homelessness. It shames me that I even sometimes ask why adopting an older child matters.

My God, Ron could be any one of my own children! I am reminded that even if my parenting abilities are questioned by the social services professionals in our community ... even if my reputation is sullied by the behavior of destruction-prone children ... even if others cannot or will not hear the call to adopt older children ... even then, what Claudia and I do matters. Because even at our family's lowest moments and even in my worst parenting nightmares, our children have their own bed to sleep in tonight. They will have a meal and snacks to eat. They will have clean clothes to wear. They will bike because they want to, not because they have to. Best of all, they won't have to worry about more than doing well on their next spelling test or passing their driver's permit exam. And they won't ever have to worry about asking a stranger for a hot meal and a place to stay night after night.

I met Ron today, but really I met Jesus. Once again for the first time. And, I trust, not for the last time.

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me" (Matthew 25:35-36).

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I Know Why It's Called "Labor Day"

My life emerged some forty-one years ago in what could generously be called “blue collar roots.” My father had finished ten years of school and left to work. My mother graduated high school and within twelve months began her caretaking tasks with me. My earliest and most vivid memories are of the central place of work in our family’s life, work performed either by necessity or work neglected due to personal shortfall.

In my older elementary and high school years, I would often hear the corrective for whatever situation I was facing. Whether my malady was disillusionment, a lack of direction or a general sense of malaise, my mother’s continuing advice was: “Well, you need to work more.” Hard work was her solution for nearly every crisis in life. It was a credo not only articulated with words, but demonstrated in daily living. Neither my mother nor my father, nor my grandmother nor my grandfather on either side of the familiy have known the luxury of a salaried position. Each dollar earned, saved or spent was the result of personal effort and physical investment. In the family’s work ethic there was no such things as “a free lunch,” no purpose in government-assisted welfare programs and little appreciation for the concept of a salaried income.

My life has taken on such a different complexion. Following high school I went immediately to college. The only other acceptable solution would have been military service, an option my mother still opines (“But you would have looked so good in a uniform”), and one which I continue not to regret. After college, then, it was time to work. The idea of a graduate degree was met with questioning disdain. “You’ve been to college and you’ve got loans to pay back, so you really should be getting a job. And what kind of job will you be getting, anyway, with a degree in Religion?”

I tried my hand at a master’s program at this juncture, but it just didn’t work. The challenges of independence, working full-time and trying to pursue graduate level work did not compute well in my life. And so I worked. I worked as a part-time barely paid pastoral intern and supplemented my meager salary with office-oriented jobs here and there. It was only a number of years later (six, to be exact) that I decided to come back to the graduate program and completed a Master of Divinity.

All of that to say that my life looks considerably different than that of my parents or my grandparents before me. Twice a month I receive a check, the same amount each time (whether I’ve worked sixty hours a week or thirty hours a week). I live in a church-provided home in which utlities are paid as part of my benefits package. My family and I have health insurance (an amenity even I did not have in my college years), a privilege for which my parents and grandparents had to wait until the age of 62. Each morning I drive my relatively new car to an office where I field phone calls, answer and send emails and prepare and administer the program of a medium-sized church. When it’s time to make a hospital visit I don’t have to “clock out.” If my children have a school program, I don’t need to get “prior approval” from a supervisor to be away for an hour or so. I simply make up the time in another arena. If it is blizzarding conditions that keep us sequestered in our home for more than a day, I do not have to worry about not getting a full paycheck for the week. Frankly, I know little about “labor” anymore, at least not in a physical sense.

Effectively, I “labor” often. Being summoned to the hospital bedside of a seriously ill individual and providing prayerful support to a beleaguered family is “labor,” but not of a physical sort. Knowing that my family and I will never experience a complete weekend (unless it’s one of my designated four vacation Sundays) together is laborious, and even though I have a flexible schedule to accommodate other family-related events, it is tiring to know that in this way our family will always be different. And when Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, it is confining to know that even if our family wanted to travel to distant relatives for the holiday celebration, we would likely be unable to do so because of my pastoral responsibilities. So, in a sense, there are laborious aspects to my vocation.

But I know little about wiping sweat from my brow hour after hour under a blazing sun while lifting huge chunks of wood into the back of a pickup. I no longer experience the prickly, hay-fever inducing moments in the field helping to stack freshly-created bales of hay. I don’t know what it is like to travel to the fields with family in tow where we might work untold hours in the summer heat and humidity to pick rocks or pull weeds or harvest delicate vegetables. The fact is, I know little about labor these days.

And so yesterday’s family activity was a good reminder of what it is to labor. Typically on Labor Day (and similar holidays) Claudia and I gather the kids, head off to the nearest “big town” and eat lunch together, see a movie matinee and spend some time at the park. This Labor Day we decided to forego those activities. With the rising cost of gas and with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina upon us, our family decided to stay home, thoroughly clean and organize our home and save our money to send to the victims in the southern states. It helped motivate us to know that today (Tuesday) was “parsonage inspection” day (an annual event to determine what concerns our church trustees need to address), and we all worked hard. We organized shelves that had been in disarray for months, scrubbed walls and windows. We labored together. And hours later, in the relative glow of the experience, I reflect upon how good it feels to see the result of honest, hard work.

Ironically, my paycheck will be no higher or lower as a result of our mutually expended efforts yesterday. But the sense of satisfaction that comes from the hard work of fall cleaning is something a paycheck cannot reflect. I know why it’s called Labor Day, and I take this moment to gratefuly remember the early values that give me the capacity to appreciate those whose work is visibly wrought through intentional, hard, physical labor.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Time, the Wound of All Healers

Stepping back on to a college campus causes me to reminisce. Whether the step back is to spend some time at a university library setting in preparation for work I am engaged or, or whether the step back is to visit our son, my memories of other times and places become very real to me.

Yesterday as I helped Kyle move into his new (and by new, I mean new; Bethel University's newest residence is opening just this fall for sophomores) home, I vicariously glowed in the energy and excitement. There are the requisite parents (many of whom are greyer and older than I, that's always a personal boost) accompanying their son or daughter, carrying boxes, grocery bags and televisions and dorm-sized refrigerators. Then there are the younger siblings of the college-bound, eyes sparkling with the new world of a college campus. And, of course, the students themselves. The first-year students with their anxiety-ridden eyes, pseudo-brave expressions and personal angst wander about, furtively seeking a familiar face, seeking to project a cool, in-control demeanor.

I have been drawn back to my own college days, some twenty years ago (can it really be that long ago?) now. Some things have changed in those years. My son takes for granted the internet and its incredible capacity for connection, study and research. (I see no typewriters being lugged into the rooms any longer). The plethora of parents on the campus is astounding to me (twenty years ago parents summarily dropped their first-year students off after a perfunctory goodbye and the adventure began). But some things have not changed. The quest for self-identity and independence on the part of the college-aged. The continuing drama of letting go of a beloved child for the parents. The opportunities to develop lifelong friendships, the ever-present chance to find someone to do something with. Time comes and goes; some things change, some things remain stable.

Last night I stayed at the City Center Radisson in downtown St. Paul (good priceline.com rate) in anticipation of a church-related meeting I have later this morning. I checked in fairly late (9:30) and got a few things accomplished before readying myself for bed. Before slipping into the king-size bed I opened the eleventh-floor drapes to see what I could see in downtown St. Paul. Immediately my eyes were drawn to the east, where just a block away stands the building where I had one of my first jobs after college graduation. The year was 1987 and I was seeking a job to supplement my meager income as an interning pastor in a small, first-ring suburb church in the Twin Cities. I landed a full-time job at the Higher Education Assistance Foundation doing clerical work at the grand annual salary of $14,700. In retrospect, even then that was a meager salary, but at the time it seemed like quite a lot. I hated the job, disliked my supervisor (who disliked me even more) and endured a year of painful existence for the sake of a paycheck.

In those days, wandering through the skyway system of the downtown area at lunch time, I remember wondering what I might be doing in ten years, in twenty years, in thirty years. Those were moments of angst and disillusionment. I had always assumed a college degree would help me find meaningful, gainful employment. I felt a disappointment to my alma mater, my family (from whom I was the first on either side of the family to achieve a bachelor's degree) and to God. My existence was simply that, existence. Because I chose to return to Minnesota, my college friends were not close by. I was alone in a strange city, in a new environment and functionally independent for the first time in my life. It was painful.

It is now eighteen years later. I am no longer alone, nor am I lonely (being married with ten children nips that in the bud rather quickly). I am no longer filled with anxiety (on most days, anyway), but confident that I am faithfully responding to God's call in my life. I now have a salary and benefits package considerably larger than my remuneration in 1987. My son's college costs are now roughly twice the amount I received in salary eighteen years ago. I am not simply existing, but in many ways thriving.

The years have taken their toll in my life, however. I am not as idealistic as I once was. My understanding of God is more finely shaped. I tend more toward cynicism than optimism on most days. As with all of us who have reached the stage of "middle life," I have absorbed many wounds to the psyche and the spirit. But I am a stronger, more resilient, more capable person as a result. And these are good traits for someone whose call in life is to heal. As an adoptive parent my task is to promote healing and health in the lives of life-burdened children. As a spouse my commission is to promote health and contentment in the life of a pulled-in-many-directions friend. As a pastor I create opportunities to help people make connections with the Healer. And I am certain that I couldn't be competent in any of those arenas of my life had it not been for the many moments of pain and change I have encountered in the past forty-one years of my life. As time rolls on, I am reminded that I will have continuing opportunities for daily shaping, moments of joy and moments of pain. I can anticipate these wounds and know that they have an eventual purpose.

Time. It's the wound of all healers.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Returning to College

Well, it's that day. Our oldest son returns to college today to begin his second year at Bethel University. So much has happened in the year that is scarcely seems possible it was over 365 days ago when Claudia and I accompanied our first freshman to Welcome Week (what they call orientation at Bethel). In the past year Kyle has grown up in many ways, but especially relationally. Last year at this time he was anxious, crochety, critical and confused (although he would admit to none of those attributions, I am sure). This year he exhibits peace, a desire to be back but an appreciation for his parents and family that were not evident a year ago at this time. I think he now realizes that he can be successful in college and that his parents are supportive partners in the academic enterprise. Last year I'm not sure the proof was there for him to believe that.

Last year at this time I, too, was anxious, crochety, critical and confused (although I would admit to no more than two of those attributions). I wondered what would become of our connections, how our relationship would improve or decline. I questioned whether Kyle, tasting real independence, would ever really want to be connected to our family in ways other than the financial. I remembered my own departure for college and the raw emotions I felt at that time. And I was fairly convinced that college would change Kyle in less than deliterious ways. I grieved what I perceived as loss for weeks (my wife would say months), muddled in the morass of always wondering what would be the outcome.

This year, however, I don't harbor the same negativities. In fact, I am happy for our son to be back in college where he belongs. The summer has been really a good one in terms of parental and family relationships. While Kyle has never been verbally expressive about emotions, his behavior exhibits appreciation and attachment. For a kid who came to live with us when he was eleven years old, filled with opposition and rage, God is continuing a miraculous process of transformation in his life. He is no longer the edgy, caustic, tense kid he once was. He has been on his own in college for a year, endured (and sometimes thrived) in a summer at home with his family, and now he is ready for a second round.

In May Kyle returned to our family wondering who he was. I believe he was asking himself who he wanted to be and who he wanted to emulate. Would he decide to continue to adopt his family's standards and mores, or would he succumb to other ways of life that were distinct from what his family lived? We began the summer in a shroud of suspicion and reorientation. Through the daily conversations and occasional arguments, I believe Kyle has once again reclaimed the person he wants to be, a person that reflects in many ways the vision of life that Claudia and I have provided for the past seven years. I am grateful for the past three months, because of the opportunities for reconnection and remembering.

So, in a couple of hours we will pack the car with Kyle's belongings and begin the four-hour journey that culminates in year two at Bethel University. I will miss Kyle, of course, but I will remind myself that I am in a much better position that many other parents of eighteen- or nineteen-year-old sons. My son has been able to meet the fairly rigorous academic requirements of a private college. He is choosing a lifestyle compatible with our family's understanding of Christian faith. He is in an institution where he will have the opportunity to be exposed to people of deep Christian integrity and modeling. He will have the opportunity to meet some of the best friends of his life. Those are the positive-positives. On the negative-positive side, I am not a parent who is sending his son off to Iraq, wondering if I will ever see him alive again. I am not a parent whose son is unable (by choice or ability) to achieve a college education. I am not a parent whose son lingers in the hometown working a menial job because of a narrow view of life. I am not the parent of a son who is crippled by chemical addiction or unhealthy relationships. Claudia and I are the parents of a son who is doing just he is supposed to be doing, and doing that fairly well. I couldn't be prouder.

We're returning to college today. One of his will stay, and one of us will go. And I'm not sure who will be happier!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Life Before ... A Life After

Adoptive parents are haunted by many things. Perhaps I shouldn’t make such an overarching assumption. Let me put it another way. As an adoptive parent I am haunted by many things. I wonder what it might have been like to have held any one of our ten children as they entered the world, pink-puckered flesh and surprise-filled lungs filling my welcoming arms. What were their first steps like? Were they born bald or with lots of hair? What were their first words? What was their life like before they lived with Claudia and me?

Part of my personal haunting is based upon logical, rational needs to know. And part of my personal haunting is more emotional and less rational. It is for emotional reasons that I wonder if my children will be as attached to me as they might have been to their birth parents. Do they regard me as their father or as some pseudo-parent doing the best he can but not quite the same as the “original”? I’m sure that my questions reveal more about my own inadequacies than about my childrens’ feelings, but I wonder sometimes about their lives before me and the family Claudia and I have created through adoption.

The mystery of their lives before us preoccupies me. Claudia and I have done our best over the years to be respectful of our childrens’ early years and of their birth parents. We choose to speak factually, but not negatively, about why it is that their birth parents were unable to be with for the duration of their lives. We pray for their birth parents and thank God for giving birth to the children we now love. But I am haunted by the early years.

With my anxiety-prone existence I wonder, too, about what their lives will be like after us. What will happen when the time comes for them to leave the nest? Who will I be when they are legally adults, emotionally independent enough to stand on their own, making decisions they will be fully responsible for? Will they continue to see me as their father, or will their primal roots hearken them back to another place in which I will be relegated to the sidelines? My conscience chides me for such self-centered, protective thoughts. My logic reminds me, “That’s part of the risk of being an adoptive parent.” My sense of fairness says, “You cannot deny your children access to their past.” Yet I wonder, what will my life be like as an adoptive parent of adult children, the life after the one I currently know?

Recently I heard the words of a retired United Methodist pastor speaking to a group of us clergy about the loss of his wife of many years. While still actively engaged in vocational ministry he was (and is) a respected pastor, a passionate preacher possessing a refreshing human warmth. In reflective tones he reflected with us about the early days he and his wife shared together. He reminisced about the camp experiences he and she had shared together as children and young adults, and recalled to memory several of her boyfriends in those early years before they were together. “It has been so comforting to me,” he said, “to remember that she had a life before me. I am comforted because I know that if she had a life before me, she will also have a life after me.” And he was OK with that.

The beauty of his words is that they speak on a number of levels, including the spiritual (his hope in eternal life and eventual reunion) and the emotional (that she had been all right before she was with him and that she would be all right now that she wasn’t).

Perhaps this is what I need to understand. That my children had a life before me (checkered as it was with abuse and neglect, but also, I presume, moments of happiness), and my children will have a life after me. And it will be OK. For me and for them.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Heroes For a Day (or Two)

It's not often that parents of an eighteen-year-old son can be heroes for a day. By the time your son or daughter has spent a year at college parental aspirations of heroism have long faded. Sometimes it's because the parents have done a better-than-adequate job in helping their youngster fly with open wings from the family nest into a new world of independence. Or it might be because your young adult son or daughter has found ways to connect with others who can meet the needs they have. So, I guess, these are moments where parents can decide to be heroes for a day.

Our son and his best friend have significant others in a distant rural community nearly seven hours away from our home. Throughout the school year Kyle and Trevor have periodically made the trip from the Twin Cities (which cuts off three or four hours from the trip) and once or twice this summer. Kyle's friend has had a love interest in this small community for more than a year now, while Kyle has recently pursued this girl's best friend. "Pursue" might be too strong of a word, because it seems like more a mutual interest. For a couple of weeks now the two guys have been planning a last-of-summer trip to visit their girls, and they left on Friday morning for the weekend.

The rest of us in our family went about our plans on Friday. We did some errands in a nearby town and then met for a 1:15 showing of "Rebound." During the movie Kyle called my cell phone, and I chose to text him back rather than disturb my movie watching. After the movie, though, I called Kyle who sheepishly told me that he and Trevor were in the same city we were, watching a movie at a different theater. "Trevor's car broke down." "Oh, I said," so what does that mean for your trip this weekend?" "Well, it looks like it's off," was his response. "That's too bad," I commisserated, "I know you were really looking forward to it."

A brief excursus is necessary at this point. A number of days ago, when Kyle first mentioned this plan, I responded with less than a joyous response. I conveyed in a rather passionate discourse why I was disturbed that he would spend his last weekend of the summer hours away with a girl we had never met. I did my best to convey my disappointment that he would choose a weekend away from his family, when he would be leaving in days and see us only three or four times in the next several months. He was undeterred by my passionate, if misguided, appeal to the value of family, and I settled for what I knew would be the outcome.

So, as I commisserated with Kyle's plight, I was not surprised by his next words, "Is there any chance we could take one the vehicles [meaning one of our family's vehicles] instead?"

A second brief excursus is necessary at this point. We have consistently told Kyle over the course of the past few years that if he wanted to buy a car we would help him finance one once he had saved $1,000. His lifestyle choices have hitherto prevented that from happening -- movies and other forms of entertainment have found Kyle's heart more than saving for a car, so Claudia and I have not been very receptive to Kyle's plaintive pleas for a vehicle. Our typical response has been, "Well, Kyle, we hope you can use those DVDs and tickets you've been buying over the past three years to help you out with your transportation needs." And usually his friends have been able to come through with transportation plans, and Kyle has found what he needed to get where he needs to go.

My immediate response, then, to Kyle's request was, "Well, Kyle, the old van isn't really in any condition to be traveling hundreds of miles this weekend." "Well, Dad, I was kind of thinking of the new van; it's intended for long distances." He was really stretching here, and I calmly replied, "I don't think so, son. Sorry." He never bothered to ask about the car, which I knew was his preferred mode of transportation anyway. We exchanged pleasantries, and I said, "So, guess we'll see you at home later today, huh?" "Yeah, guess so."

I called Claudia, mentioned Kyle's situation and said sarcastically, "Well, here's our big chance to be Kyle's savior." She said, "Is that something you really want to do?" "Not on your life, " I said, "he gets what he gets." In the minutes that followed though, I thought a little further. Was Kyle doing something we didn't want him to do? Not really. Would his visit with New Love have appropriate boundaries. Yes, her parents would be present or available at nearly all times. Had Kyle done anything throughout the summer to cause us to mistrust him? No, his attitude and behavior during the summer had been generally that of a growing young adult. So, I called Claudia back, and we decided that perhaps we should become Heroes for a day (or two).

I called Kyle. "Hey, Kyle," I said. "Yeah, Dad." "I'm wondering ... would you and Trevor like to take the car this weekend?" Long silence. "Are you kidding? You mean we could really do that?" "Yeah," I said, "Mom and I think that would be fine." "That'd be freakin' awesome, and I'd love you a lot!" [It's worth noting that while the first clause of the previous sentence is typical Kyle, the second clause is not]. "So, come on home and pick up the car and get yourselves on your way," I said. "You're serious about this, Dad? We can really do that?" "Yep, see you soon." After a few seconds of stunned silence, Kyle's response was, "Uh, ok, Dad. See you soon."

I must confess that over the past couple of years I have done my best/worst to guilt Kyle into feeling the value of a family. We have gone round and round about why he needs to be involved in what we do and how he needs to display less selfish and more others-centered ways. You know, the whole last-minute parenting efforts to try to assuage your parental conscience that your young adult son or daughter is ready enough to enter the real world. These efforts on my part have been, for the most, ineffective and resulted in making myself only feel manipulative and shallow. On the other hand, to experience the joy of Kyle's surprise at this opportunity has flooded my soul with joy. Part of the joy comes from the surprise on his part (a surprise, I might add, that Kyle would not have experienced had Claudia and I not been consistent in the past few years in disrupting his sense of entitlement), and part of the joy comes from knowing that we would be able to do something of heroic proportions in the eyes of an eighteen-year-old and his friend.

I even decided to step up the heroism just a bit more. I filled up the car with gas (not a haphazard action when gas is now $2.60 a gallon), washed the car and got it home so that Kyle wouldn't have to wait too long before his departure. On his way to the car, in a still-shocked stupor, Kyle paused for a moment and I said, "Kyle, I want you to understand why Mom and I are doing this. You have shown yourself to be trustworthy this summer, and this is a demonstrable way we can tell you we have noticed and love you. We know this is something you want to do, and we're glad we can help it happen. Have a good time, and remember we love you." I hugged him, kissed him on the top of the head and sent him off for his weekend adventure.

Five minutes later I called him. "Kyle?" "Yeah, dad." "Having a good time?" "Ummm, yeah." "Well, I won't bother you again for a while, but I need you to look in the space between the seats. There's a $20 bill and a credit card there." "No, I don't see that there. Sorry." "No, Kyle, it's a statement, not a question. There *is* a $20 bill and a credit card there." "Oh, yeah, I see it now." "That's for you and Trevor." Long pause. "Mom and I want you and Trevor to use the $20 for food on the way and to use the credit card to pay for gas." "Sooo, you're going to buy the gas, too?" "Yeah, have a nice time, son." "Yeah, OK, dad. Ummm. Thanks. You know what really sucks?" "What's that, Kyle?" "Trevor's transmission is going to have to be replaced and it's going to cost him $2300." "Well, at least he won't have to worry about paying for gas this weekend, will he?" "No. Guess not. Thanks again, Dad."

Ah, the joy of being a hero for a day (or two).