Thursday, March 30, 2006

From Tourist to Pilgrim

It's been nearly ten years now since my spouse and I began the journey of foster/adoptive parenting. We were married in June of 1996, and by October of 1996 we had our first child (now our second-to-the-youngest child, Anthony) in our home, although at the time we never knew he would become a permanent part of our lives. In those early years I recognized that I was a neophyte, and that I didn't have all the answers. I would characterize my experience in those early years as that of a tourist, taking in the "sights," observing different ways of life, not needing to be too deeply embedded in what I perceived to be a transitory experience. Somewhere in the depths of my subconsiousness I think I believed I would easily be able to revert to my prior sense of security and familiarity of surroundings. Like any tourist, I enjoyed the scenery of the initial adoption trips (both literally and metaphorically), but I naively assumed I would one day be returning to the sense of place I had carefully cultivated for those first thirty-some years of my life.

I guess I was thinking that eventually I would reclaim the sense of settledness I had associated with my own routines, patterns and haunts. Nearly all tourists will say that as much as they have enjoyed their time away, it's always "better to be home." I may be a slow learner, but I'm coming to realize after nearly ten years, that I may never again experience my earlier sense of what "settledness" means. My life has been too dramatically altered (and consistently, in a daily way, continually changed) to be either a very good tourist or a settled home-body ever again.

And I'm not sure I like that. Living with the uncertainties of special needs children and their skewed perceptions of life is heart-rendingly difficult. Almost evey day I am internally challenged by my life as an adoptive father. Soul-shattering questions invade my well tended personal spiritual garden. "Does any of this make a difference?" "Will these children turn out pretty much the same in our adoptive family as they would have in another setting?" "What does 'you're not my real father anyway' really mean?" I wonder, when our kids are caught stealing, lying, manipulating, cursing, fighting, vandalizing, running ... I wonder if our family's values will ever seep into their life-hardened spirits.

I am not a parent by birth, so I assume some of these same questions are asked by all parents. But the adoptive experience always adds an ethereal nuance to the questions. Lurking in the background is always the question, "What if ... " What if Mike's birthmom never took a drink or a hit while she was pregnant with him? What if John's birthmom's boyfriend had never beaten him with a garden hose? What if Tony's early life had been not included his birthmom being knocked unconscious by her abusive boyfriend in his Tony's presence? What if Ricardo had been adopted at an earlier age by a family who could have nurtured him instead of government-run orphanages in Guatemala? What if Jimmy had not been maliciously burned numerous times with cigarettes in a drug-infested Guatemala City room? The "what if's" that adoptive parents ask are different, I surmise, from those who are parents by birth from the beginning.

I am no longer a tourist in the adoption quest. And I recognize that I will never again live in the tranquil, controlled, known surroundings I created for myself in my young adult years. Instead, I have become a pilgrim, "one who journeys in foreign lands." The pilgrim is one who is intentional about his or her quest. The pilgrim never quite knows what the next mountain crest or snaking river may bring. The pilgrim is less concerned about the destination than about the journey itself.

The concept of pilgrimage has such deep roots in Judeo-Christian faith that I shouldn't be surprised, really, with the reality. From Abraham, the father of many nations, who heeds God's call to move all that he has in his elderly years ... to John the Baptist ... to Jesus Christ ... and the apostles ... the desert fathers and mothers ... the Reformers of the Church, both ancient and contemporary ... to those who daily never know what the expect in their lives. We are pilgrims with one thing in common: our only sense of security and personhood is found in the One who has created us and in the One who journeys with us.

The destination may be unclear, the pilgrimage rife with daily perplexity and change, but the One constant is the God of the widow, the alien and the orphan. For adoption pilgrims, this God is all we have.

And it is enough.

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