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.