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.