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 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).

Friday, August 19, 2005

Anticipatory Grief and Intended Purpose

I notice in my near-daily walks how regularly nature changes. Not that long ago -- in mid-May -- the neighboring corn and soybean crops were slim green fronds poking through the earth's surface, yearning for sunlight and moisture to promote their quest toward fulfillment. Just last night, with the soft orange of a full-orbed moon rising, I realized I could no longer see above or beyond the strong stalks with burgeoning ears of corn. The soybeans, lush in their emerald green hues, await the sunlight of late August and September to tease them into a brilliant yellow fury crying, "Harvest." It will not be long now before the corn and beans are harvested and their intended purpose will be fulfilled. There is a graceful beauty in these processes of nature, yet I still bear some anticipatory grief, for I know that all too soon the field will appear barren once again on the surface. To my prying eyes there will be little happening during the restful seasons of autumn and winter. Yet, beneath the surface, as the ground rests and prepares itself for a new season of preparation, planting and eventual harvest, there is hope.

It's not only the changes of nature that provoke my anticipatory grief. I know that within days "summer" as we have known it will be over. Our children will be back in school, the house will be blessedly, achingly quiet from 8:00 AM until 3:00 PM, and a new season brimming with activity and challenge will be upon us. I've always enjoyed summers because the children are more accessible and time is more flexible. I enjoy knowing that when I come home from the office at lunchtime there will be eager voices clamoring, "What's for lunch, dad?" Even if there is nothing special planned, simply knowing that my entrance is welcomed and anticipated warms my heart. But like the crops growing in the field, awaiting their intended purpose, my children are ready for the next season, ready to embrace what comes next.

It seems that in families with two parents one is typically the nurturer (the one who gives children "roots" ) and one is the freer (the one who gives children "wings"). As crops need to be planted, nurtured and harvested, so children need welcome, guidance and ever-growing autonomy. In our family I am the nurturer, the one who roots children in our lives. I find such fulfillment in the dance of attachment and deepening connections. I am not the harvester, the one who sees the "crop" to be harvested and frees it for its intended purpose. While I know its necessary and even healthy, I find myself grieving the loss of what has been, for what has been is easier to see than that which is to come.

There are several waves of change ahead for our family. Today, for the first time in nearly a year, our fifteen-year-old son will be coming home for a four-day visit before he returns back to his residential treatment program. We have been awaiting this transition with both optimism and anxiety. In two days our sixteen-year-old son, also in treatment, will have his first two-hour visit away from his facility (it's been more than six months since he's physically left the building). Next week our college-age son will leave the nest once again to begin his second year of college. The summer with him has had its share of up's and down's, but generally it's been a time of deepend connections and enhanced trust. In two weeks our remaining children will return to school. Our youngest son will be a third grader. To think that when we arrived in Luverne six years ago he was still at-home with Mom during the day.

Summer is nearly gone, autumn is nearly here. The humdrum growing days of summer will soon burst into the harvesting flurry of fall. And like the crops around us, we will each find our intended purpose.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Love of One and the Best Interests of Many

A perennial parenting struggle is knowing how to balance the needs of the individual child with the best interests of the entire family. A long time ago Claudia and I gave up on the "treat everyone the same" philosophy of parenting. The truth of the matter is that parents who think they can treat each child the same are deluded. This is the case in any family, but especially so in the case of families caring for children with special needs. It is simply not possible to have the same expectation for a child with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), say, and a child whose organic brain development has not been impaired. Each child's strengths and weaknesses need to be individually evaluated with appropriate expectations following the reality such an inquiry produces.

Beyond the issue of psychological diagnoses, there are also the dynamics of parental favortism. Because of shared interests, similar personality traits and even the ambiguity of intuition, parents may naturally be more attuned to an individual child more than to another. Such attunement cannot be equated with love (after all, parents love their children equally, but in different ways), but sometimes shows itself in time and interest invested.

In the midst of all the family dynamics, however, there is the overriding, perennial preocuppation of parents: how to develop the individual's capactiy with love and attention while tending to the needs of the entire family system. The more participants in the family system, the more complex the issues become. While this complexity intimidates some (hence the misunderstanding on the parts of many regarding the dynamics of a large family), it can provide a good opportunity for children to become conversant with the challenging depths of life before entering the world as an independent person. Is there a better place for a person to learn about relational complexity than in a family with healthy functioning?

I'm meandering in these thoughts, but I began mulling them over in relation to a scripture text I read this morning. It's the portion from 2 Samuel (in the Hebrew Scriptures) where King David learns of the death of his son Absalom. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you need to know that Absalom was one of David's numerous offspring and that Absalom declared mutiny against his father's kingdom and attempted to overthrow him from the throne. While David protects his right of kingship in the face of this rebellious son, he never relinquishes his love for Absalom. Throughout the battles, David admonishes his military leaders to deal gently with Absalom, expressly forbidding his death. Taking matters into their own hands, however, David's military leaders kill Absalom and bring the news back to the King. Upon hearing the news of his son's death, "The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

The King's grief continues for a period of time, until finally one of his advisors reminds David that he has a responsibilty to the military who defended him (and to the kingdom) to show his appreciation for their support of his kingly rule. David has to confront his love of one (Absalom) and the best interests of many (his defenders and the people of his realm). These are not mutually exclusive categories, but navigating the pathway between the two is one of the most arduous of the parenting journey.

Here again, is one of the paradoxes of parenting. How is it that parents, in the midst of rebellion and outright mutiny, maintain such a deep connection with their son or daughter? One of the keys seems to lie in remembering better times and other days or envisioning a preferred future while maintaining a consistent presence for the child rafting the tumultuous waters of life. Even if those waters consume the child's life -- perhaps to the point of extinction -- a parent's love echoes through the corridors of time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Leader or Manager?

So, Kyle and I have been reading "Don't Waste Your Life," and the chapter we discussed last night had to do with taking risks for God to glorify Jesus Christ. I must admit that often I find it difficult to wade through the religious language of Piper's book (even, perhaps especially, as a theologically trained person) because I so value speaking in language that communicates with people not theologians. But I digress. In the opening salvo of our discussion I asserted that there are at least two kinds of risks in life: (a) appropriate risks, because someone (Someone?) beyond ourself is benefited and (b) questionable risks, because it's really all about us.

In question was a particular issue: is it ok for, say, a college student who is romantically involved with another student at another campus to visit them and spend the night with them in their dorm room, even if "nothing is going to happen"? As you might guess, this was more than a hypothetical question up for discussion between the two of us.

I launched into a passionate defense of virtue, moral character and the need to follow the biblical admonition to "avoid the appearance of all evil." My son's response was less than open-minded. In the fray I was indicted as a legalistic, hypocritical religious bigot who couldn't trust his motives or intentions. Try as I might, I couldn't convince him that my issue was less with his intentions (which I believe to be honorable and appropriate) and more with the appearance he would give to others in such a situation. I went on to say a few more uncharitable things intended more to provoke his thinking than to impugn his integrity, but I confess to having gone overboard.

By the time we arrived at the theater (remember ... we discuss the book and then I pay for a movie), neither of us were in any mood to watch anything together. We stalked into the theater, I purchased the tickets in silence and we sat in the darkened theater to watch "The Skeleton Key." There were no words expressed during the movie, no shared moments of surprise or laughter. It was a pretty good movie but a dismal interpersonal interaction.

Walking back to the car I broke the silence by asking, "What did you think?" "Pretty good" was the nearly monosyllabic response. "You?" "Same" I responded. I decided to wait a few minutes, but I didn't have to wait long.

"I just want to say, Dad, that I said some things I didn't really mean. It's just that when you give me an ultimatum, my natural instinct is to defy it and argue to win. I'm not sure why I said all the stuff I said, because if [my girlfriend] visited me at [my Christian college] she wouldn't be able to stay with me in my room either." I responded with an apology of my own and then asked, "So do you really think I'm a legalistic religious bigot?"

"Well," he responded slowly, "It does seem like you think yourself better than others sometimes." "And what do you mean by that, Kyle?" I asked. "If you mean that I think myself better than the guy in town who gets drunk every night, beats his children and cheats on his wife, yeah, I think I'm better than that." "That's not what I mean," my son said.

Doing my best to maintain a non-anxious presence, I invited Kyle to say more. "Well, you do make some people at church mad because of the changes you make happen, even though I do agree with those changes." And thus opened the door to a conversation about the nature of leadership and risk-taking that my earlier rant had interrupted.

In the ensuing moments we had an opportunity talk about the nature of leadership, and of Christian leadership in particular. There is a difference between a manager and leader. A manager's goal is to foster an environment where people are just "one big happy family." Managers seek to minimize conflict, promote harmony and create a fragile peace. I was able to explain how Christian leaders sense God's movement to something beyond the status quo and the norm to a new place, a place that allows people previously forgotten or left out, to experience God's enveloping love. I owned the accusation that leaders have to have an ego that allows them to be clear about direction, even when there are those who may not be able to own it. And we were able to talk about how those kind of risks are what distinguish committed, faithful disciples of Jesus Christ from those who are risk-takers for their own self-interest. It was a blessed moment of clarification, the emotional distance was bridged and the impassioned air calmed.

Mark this down as yet another reason why parenting (and adoptive parenting in particular) matters. I'm really going to miss these conversations when Kyle returns to college in a few days.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Does It Matter?

My wife and I have recently completed (yet another) spirited discussion about whether or not adoptive parenting really matters. I suppose it is a discussion any couple could have about raising children, but there are dynamics that make adoptive parenting unique. To the fore, of course, is the issue of environment and genetics. Is it nature of nurture that makes the biggest difference in lives of growing children?

Until I became an adoptive parent I was an ardent proponent of environment (nurture). Virtually everything I studied, all the speakers I heard in the course of time, even my own religious and spiritual persuasions had led me to believe that nurture was the all-important key to productive, successful living. I will always remember the words of our first-arriving son's social worker who tried her best to convince me that genetically our son had a number of strikes against him. His birth mother, after all, had been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Disorder, Conduct Disorder (which brought her into numerous conflicts with authority figures and eventually the legal system), and had an array of chemical issues stemming from alcohol to marijuana to God knows what else. Even as Diane the social worker articulated her concerns, I convinced myself that nurture would trump nature every day. Experience has encroached upon my idealism.

Now, nearly nine years later, I must admit that nature holds a powerful sway in the life of all growing things. In fact, over the course of the past twelve to eighteen months, I have succumbed to an ideology that says nature is everything, that nurture has little to do with eventual outcome. I have felt reinforced with significant anecdotal evidence: one son in a treatment center after numerous runaway episodes and little progress for months at a time, a second son following a similar path but in a different location, a third son leaving the family nest for a first year of college and necessary (though painful) emotionally self-distancing techniques. And, of course, there are the regular challenges of children yet at home who continue in a path of defiance and disregard for parental guidance. These have been excrutiatingly difficult months in my life for a number of reasons, the most significant I now recognize as the crushing of my philosophical predispositions. From the predisposition of believing that my efforts as a devoted, competent, invested parent mattered, I have come to believe that what I do matters little. My nightly mantra, as my spouse will quickly confirm, has been, "It doesn't really matter what I or you do, Claudia. It's all in the genes. It's hereditary, and we cannot change it, we can only endure it and prepare for the inevitable."

To live under the burden of such fatalism is, indeed, devastating. It has meant the emotional equivalent of breaking from the frontlines of battle and running for self-protective cover, oblivious to the possibility of success and convinced of the inevitably of defeat. To live in defeat is not to live but to rehearse the throes of impending death.

Which, perhaps, is why I understand the dilemma our sixteen-year-old son Mike faces. He has been, on and off, but mostly on, in a treatment center for well over a year now. His progress has been checkered, with moments of success and great periods of non-compliant failure. His current stint in non-compliance finds him stuck in an intractable situation. He chooses not to make any progress because he feels any attempts he makes will be met with setback. Why try to make progress, he tells me, when to do nothing offers a more predictable result?

Today we had yet another meeting with Mike, his case worker and two of the staff members at his treatment center. Prior to meeting with Mike the five of us decided that Mike needs to find success somewhere, even it means we decision-makers have to surrender our need to win. We have developed a new plan which we have shared with Mike as a way for him to get himself out of the treatment facility. I asked for a few minutes to talk with Mike alone before the others joined us. (Claudia demurred at the invitation to join the conversation). I explained to Mike that we wanted him out of treatment, but that he needed to show the others around the table that he was willing to work with the revised goals. "At this point, MIke," you have no negotiating tools, no bargaining chips at all," I told him. "You need to have something -- a pattern of success and compliance -- to convince the others that you need to come out. And Mom and I want to help you get to that point." That's what I told him. But I had a decision of my own to make, perhaps the more significant one contributing to the dynamic. In order for this plan to succeed, I have to decide whether what I do as his father matters or does not matter.

On the way out of the meeting, Claudia said to me, "You're going to save him, aren't you?" "Yeah," I said with a wry smile to myself, "I believe I am." In that moment (a result of several other moments leading to this time and place) I had to reclaim my abandoned presupposition: that nurture matters. That nurture triumphs history and genetic predisposition is an ideal I am returning to, with reservation, hesitation and the acknowledgment that failure is a very real possibility.

The choices are clear. I can consign myself to a lingering death wish, characerized by resigned disappointment, enduring what I anticipate to be the inevitable negative outcome. Or I can choose to live a precept I once knew and hazily remember: that redemption is always a very real possibility, and that what we do in life matters. I can choose death or I can choose life. Once again I choose life.

Does it matter? Once again I'm ready to find out.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Don't Waste Your Life

Sometimes a father can make a suggestion to his eighteen-year-old son that works. Earlier this summer I invited our oldest son Kyle to join me in a discussion of John Piper's "Dont' Waste Your Life." It was not a suggestion I made spontaneously. In fact, from the beginning I was dubious as to whether it would work all that well. (I had some residual memories of a similar experiment three summers ago, when Kyle declared that walking four miles a day -- which at the time I was in the habit of doing -- was not a big deal, and I challenged him to walk with me four miles a day for 90 days, after which he would receive $200. The journey, and the destination, were really not very pleasant, although Kyle did earn his $200). So anyway, after thoughtfully considering how to approach Kyle, I decided how to cinch the challenge. For each chapter read, I would treat him to a movie of his choice (plus snacks) if he would spend the trip to the theater and back (thirty minutes each way) discussing the content of the chapter in question.

Even then I wondered at the irony of discussing a book whose title is "Don't Waste Your Life," when I questioned whether the process would turn out to be the same painful experience as the summer years earlier. I didn't really want to waste my emotional energy in a father-son project that might result in frustration and irritation.

It is really surprising how enjoyable this process has been. Kyle has been committed to reading the chapter (especially diligent on the verge of a new movie he might be interested in seeing, but diligent nonetheless), and we have been engaged in many interesting conversations. For the first time ... ever ... we've ridden together without music dominating the ride and with conversation setting the tone and agenda.

John Piper's theological position is not very close to my own. He is a good-hearted Calvinist who understands God's sovereignty in ways that this warm-hearted, free-will Methodist will never understand. While I cannot accept much of Pipe's theology, I certainly resonate with the purpose of his book. To make Christ the center of one's life and to live in ways that others perceive as risk-filled for the sake of meaning and purpose is something Piper and I can agree upon wholeheartedly. And really, when it's all said and done, it seems to me that there will be less concern on God's and others' parts about the purity or clarity or uniformity of doctrine and more concern with how we have lived the mission of Christ.

Kyle and I have had the opportunity to discuss theology and Christian life. We've talked about the nature of humanity (are humans sinful by nature or does God intend for something different?) We've thought about the nature of lukewarmness and whether or not that results in spiritual lostness. We've talked about the nature of God and what our response is to such a God. And, just a few nights ago, I had the opportunity to apologize for something that's been clouding our relationship for weeks. I have had to come to the point of releasing something that I have hung on to for too long. I hung on to it for basically selfish reasons -- a tool of relational manipulation, a means of reinforcing disappointment, and as an opportunity for asserting parental authority.

And my motivation for such an apology came through a book whose author's theology I cannot affirm. It came through the author's reminder of the incident in Jesus' life when confronting a crowd of self-righteous legalists, he asks the antagnoists of a life-worn woman, "Where are your accusers now?" Seeing no one remaining to accuse her further, Jesus says, "Then I do not condemn you either. Go and sin no more."

Reading those words again, for they were not new ones to me, I knew the onus was upon me. I had been wasting opportunities for respectful interactions because of my unwillingness to let go. I had been jettisoning moments for pleasant conversations with my oldest son whom I love dearly in order to fulfill a smug self-righteousness that I cannot honestly wear. I had been fostering an environment of mistrust to salve my own disappointments. I had been wasting my life. To offer another words of apology with an attitude of humility that says, "There are many things about myself that I regret and would hope no one hangs on to any longer," is indeed freeing.

I have learned something profound. Don't waste your life in assigning blame, assuaging self-doubt or posturing self-righteousness. Find life in understanding, compassion and humility. Sometimes a father can make a suggestion that works, even for himself.

Friday, August 12, 2005

"Either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing"

I have been reluctant to succumb to the "blog" craze for any number of reasons ... one more "thing" in my life to manage ... fear of too much personal self-disclousre to an unsuspecting public ... but the main reason is best summarized in Benjamin Franklin quote titling this initial foray into the world of blog. Franklin's full ditty: "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."

So, it would seem, there are at least two choices: (a) write skillfully with careful craft or (b) live intentionally with distinctive choices. A third choice, too, would be some combination of the two. And perhaps that's what this blog site will become, a journey of mind and heart.

And so, here is the question I toy with today: "Does life find us or we do we find life?"

I have been struck by portions of Stephen R. Covey's "The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness," in which he says: "I really do believe that when we are born, our work is born with us and we have to find out what that is." He goes on to speak of "finding our voice" as the Eighth Habit. "When you engage in work that taps your talent and fuels your passion -- that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet -- therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul's code. There is a deep, innate, almost inexpressible yearning within each of us to find our voice in life."

While I have not read his complete work, Covey causes me to ask some questions about life and the "voice" of call. I wonder to what extent any of us listen to others' voices when it comes to discerning our paths in life? In what ways do our own needs and yearnings become replaced with what we see in others around us? How do we sublimate the rich depth of the Other (as distinguished from the "others") in our individual quests for satisfaction, meaning and peace?

How is it that we "find our voice" to quote Covey? While I cannot speak for Covey, I know that for me I am learning that finding my voice has virtually nothing to do with the external tasks of my life. Externally I am a husband, a father, a pastor. With those roles there come certain "external" expectations. I need to find time to be engaged meaningfully with my spouse. I choose to spend time and money and to invest emotionally in my children even if I see few prospects of reciprocity. (I am told that reciprocity comes down the road, but I must confess moments of disbelief). Externally my pastoral role requires consistency, competency and integrity.

But it is my internal life that really matters. Most of us can manage the external life fairly well. We understand the expectations and discipline ourselves or find ways to hide enough to make it appear that we are what we need to be. The heart of the matter, however, is what happens internally. Finding our voice is an internal quest, a consistent pattern of reflection and nurture that gives us the integrity of merging the external and internal into something that seems to ourselves and others as "real."

"Do things worth writing the writing" is a call to integrate our internal and external lives in a way that gives our voice confidence and authority.