Thursday, June 29, 2006

Distinct in Life, Colleagues in Death

One of the spiritual disciplines in which I engage is The Daily Office, a daily worship experience that can be individual or communal in nature. For the most part my journey through The Daily Office is a solitary, but rewarding, one. I have learned new hymns (the website above has the option of musical accompaniment), become more disciplined in praying composed prayers (my personal history has been largely extemporaneous prayer), and in the course of two years read the entire Scriptures. An addition that I like comes in moments to add time for silent reflection and/or meditative reading outside the parameters of the Office. Currently I have decided to add For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists. Nearly every day includes a day associated with a Christian -- this is an ecumenical resource with United Methodist heritage components -- whose spiritual life and practice have been exemplary.

Today I read of Sts. Peter and Paul. This is their day, a festival day of commemoration. Their day was established early one, during the time of Roman persecutions of early Christ-followers. I find it interesting that during their lives these men were quite distinct from one another. Their conversions were different, their personalities were different, their experience of one another was often controversial. You need only read the Acts of the Apostles to witness to their distinctness in life. Paul was confrontational and boundary-breaking, while Peter is more reluctant and conservative. Acts 15 recounts the first major doctrinal battle in the Christian movement, with Paul and Peter on opposite sides of an issue regarding inclusion (that is, who is included in the claims of Christ and how people of different backgrounds access this faith). Peter was concerned that one must first adopt the old ways and then come to Christ; Paul insisted that it was unnecessary to put "stumblingblocks" in the way of those who wished to come to Christ. As it turns out, a compromise was reached, but only after much wrangling and prayer, and the decision was for inclusion (but with sensitivity to the concerns of the other group). These were two very different individuals, for which the term "colleagues" might only loosly apply. They were united in mission (to share the good news of Jesus Christ), but not in method nor in personality. At least not in life.

But in death, Sts. Peter and Paul are united, colleagues in martyrdom. Christian tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside down (the typical means of capital punishment for a slave) at his request (he did not feel worthy to be crucified in the same fashion as his Lord), and that Paul was beheaded.

It was their commitment to the mission at hand and not to their personal eccentricities that has joined them together in Christians' memories. The biggest challenge, in my estimation, of the Christian faith community in the Western world is our wholesale acceptance of our culture's extreme emphasis upon individualism. We are taught from the time we are old enough to remember that our task in life is to "become somebody," to discover "self-esteem," and to "pull ourselves up by the bootstraps" (to use parlance of an older generation). We value the rugged individualist and look askance at those who seek the aid of others. Our society values those who spend their lives making a "better life for themselves" (translation: power, status and money), but we revile those who look "for handouts" (translation: those at the margins, the forgotten, the destitute).

In our faith communities we individuals want our preferences understood and adopted. If it is traditional worship with resounding organ at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, the pastor and leadership of the church better leave that experience untouched. Or, at the other extreme, if it is more indigenous worship with screeching electric guitar and pulsating drums at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, the "old guard" better not say a word. Churches, it seems, do one of three things: (1) Maintain tradition at the cost of new opportunities for ministry; (2) Institute indigenous at the risk of disenfranchising the faithful of many years; or (3) muddle into the middle with a combination that often serves neither preference group very well.

In any case, the most difficult learning for people of faith is that it is not our preference that should lead the decision-making process. What must lead our decision-making process is our sense of mission. If our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ (which the New Testament seems fairly clear about), then our preferences and comfort levels must take second priority to the opportunity to reach new people groups with the good news of Jesus Christ.

It's hard for us entitled, membership-as-privilege, western Christians to understand that our sense of unity must be found in our mission, not in what is often a deluded sense of "harmony." And what I like so well about this day that commemorates both St. Paul and St. Peter, is that in death they are joined. They are joined not because they were alike in life, nor even because their methods were the same. They are joined as colleagues in martyrdom (and in perpetual Christian memory) because of their shared passion to the mission.

I'm hopeful that we western Christians will not have to wait until our deaths to be so identified. We need to be joined in the mission, whatever that means and wherever that may take us.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Weltanschung

More than twenty years ago in a college Introduction to Philosophy class I learned the quirky German word Weltanschung which means, roughly, "world view." A world view is the way you understand existence based partly on your experiences of life. There are other factors that become mixed in to create our individual views of the world (our socioeconomic status, the broader cultural issues, and the like), but essentially Weltanschung informs the way we live our lives.

Today is June 28, the "day" of Irenaeus (born about 202), an early Christian leader whose names means "lover of peace." As with many of the early Christians, Irenaeus debated competing faith claims in distinction to Christian faith. He is most remembered for his vigorous challenges to Gnosticism, which held that the world is foundationally evil and that one can escape the evil world only through secretive knowledge available to a select few. The battles Irenaeus fought dealt with a foundational matter ... how we exist in the world. In contrast to Gnostic claims of secrecy and limitation, Irenaeus countered with God's creative goodness and redemption in Jesus Christ, echoing themes which have been passed down through the eons since the time of the Apostles.

While most of us do not take much time to examine our own Weltanschung, the ministry of Irenaeus is a reminder that it is important to consider on a periodic basis how we understand our existence in this world. Known for his respectful, peaceful approach to the matter, Irenaeus can serve as an example when we are engaged in dialogue with those who do not share our views or the world.

Irenaeus said, "[God] redeemed the world from [apostate power], not by violence (which is the way that power got control of us to begin with: it snatched insatiably at what did not belong to it) but by persuasion, for that is the proper way for a God who persuades and does not compel in order to get what he wants."

A good world, created and sustained by God, redeemed by Christ, filled with the Spirit's presence describe Irenaeus' Weltanschung ... a universe in which God's modus operandi is persuasion, not compulsion.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Other Times and Other Days

It has been nearly twenty-four years since I left home for my first year of college. I didn’t realize it (as much) then, but my first eighteen years had been ones of isolation and reticence. In the past decade-and-a-half my life has taken many interesting and unexpected turns, including completing college (which took me out of state to Oklahoma), working the first jobs in my vocation (which led me to a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and then to a county-seat size community further west in the state), the return to academia and the completion of my graduate degree, and an additional three opportunities to work in pastoral ministry. In this midst of these changes I have left one denomination to become part of another, married a friend I met in college, and acquired ten children through adoption. These have been years of addition and expansion.

But they are rapidly becoming years of subtraction and retraction, as well. In just two years Claudia and I have assisted our oldest son in departing the familiar nest for college (he is already half done with his college career), watched as two other sons have been in and out of our home alternating with social services (and now corrections) placements, and witnessed the growing acquisition of years in the lives of our children. The age span is now nineteen through ten. If I have ever felt like a middle-aged adult, it is now. And, as the old cliche goes, I wonder where the time has gone.

Yesterday our sons Jimmy and Ricardo accompanied me on a trip to visit my mother, my grandmother, and assorted aunts and cousins. We traveled the four miles north from our new home because my grandmother, who shares my birthday separated by forty-five years, recently had a stroke. We arrived at my mother’s house yesterday afternoon, invited her into our car with us, and traveled another hour to visit my grandmother, recovering in a stroke recovery unit in a northeastern Minnesota hospital.

In my vocational life I have visited scores of people in various stages of personal transition and devastation, so I was emotionally prepared for our visit. In visiting other stroke victims, I have learned that there are levels of stroke incapacitation, from near paralysis and inability to speak, to relatively unimpaired. We arrived mid-afternoon to begin our visit and discovered a grandmother who was tired but very aware of our presence. She knew who we were, although she was unable to bring our names to the surface to speak them. She is able to communicate to some degree, although she is unable to write and unable to put together sentences at this time. Her chief expressed frustration is not knowing what is going on or what to expect. She is confused as to why she is in the hospital at all, especially a strange hospital outside of her usual familiarity.

We ended up spending three hours with grandma, including a wheelchair walk outside in the bright sunlight and a protracted, irritating experience attempting to get her television to work. While we were there she opened a card from our son Dominyk (he had created it himself several days ago immediately upon hearing of Grandma’s health crisis) and a package from my sister (a glass flower in a vase she purchased on a recent visit to the Corning Glass Museum in Corning, NY). She read and understood the cards, smiling and laughing at appropriate junctures.

I was relieved to see that in spite of her stroke my grandmother was doing better than some might have expected. She has been changed by this vascular intrusion, but essentially is the woman I have known all of my life.

Things here in the home area of my birth and early years changes little over the years. It is still relatively isolated (ten miles from the nearest town of 800) and quite quiet (we took a mile-long walk last night on the highway closest my mother’s house and encountered only one vehicle the entire time). In some ways it is like stepping back into other times and other days.

But things have changed. My grandmother is no longer in her sixties, cooking and baking and driving herself about as she pleased. My mother is no longer in her forties (although it would be hard to tell due to her active lifestyle and relative youth). My aunts are now reaching the ages of retirement, and my cousins and I are providing the family with the next generation, albeit through distinctive means (two of my cousins through birth, one through in vitro fertilization and ourselves through adoption).

Some things remain the same. The haunting call of the common loon on a still Minnesota June night. The flickering brilliance of the firefly (lightning bug) flitting through the early evening twilight. The ever-present mosquitoes (unofficial state bird of Minnesota, it is rumored), penetrating dermis with their pointed prosbici. The ecological pleasures of rural, north country living is a respite from a more fast-paced, intense lifestyle we now experience.

This brief, twenty-four hour visit, has been a trip to other times and other days.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Arizona Travelogue Day Six: Save Intensity of Affect for the Good Things

Of our days in Arizona, today will go down as the most ordinary and least memorable. I sat in my seminars from 8:30 – 5:00 PM, and Tony and Kyle lounged in the sun and watched television. Other than trips away from the hotel out to each lunch and dinner, we have been here with each other for extended periods of time.

These days, and today in particular, have given me the opportunity to do some assessment of my fathering influence over the past ten years. Kyle came to our family at the age of eleven, the age Tony is now; Kyle is now nineteen, a young adult. Tony possesses some of the behaviors Kyle had when he arrived. He is oppositional, defiant and disrespectful, although the difference is that Kyle could self-regulate enough to get what he wanted. Tony is unable to do that, so he often is frustrated that things do not turn out the way he wants them to.

What I am seeing after ten years is this: often, in response to Tony’s inappropriate behavior, Kyle responds from a values base that he has learned in our family. When, for example, Tony says “God,” Kyle says, “Tony, you can’t say that. It’s wrong to say ‘God’.” That is something Kyle learned from our family. When Tony is requested to do something, and then does that one thing just one more time in a defiant act, Kyle will say: “Tony, I don’t know why you do that. Why don’t you just stop when you are asked?” Or when Tony uses an inappropriate word, Kyle will reprimand, “Tony, you know you can’t swear.” When Tony sees an African-American sports figure on television and attributes his athletic prowess to his athletic ability, Kyle will say, "Tony, that's a stereotype."

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Kyle has a distinct personality, and he is certainly no clone of either Claudia or me. What I find so fascinating, though, is that he has owned the values we have taught him, even though his personality is still very much his own. It gives me great hope that parenting, even children adopted at older ages, can benefit from the moral values of their parents and family structures. There is no greater tribute to the hard work of adoptive parenting than to see your young adult son own the values you have taught him, while being true to the person he himself is. And the beauty of a parenting job well done is that the young adult child doesn’t even realize that the values he possesses are ones you’ve nurtured in his life. That these values are seemingly a natural extension of his own developing personality is a tribute to God’s goodness and committed parenting.

The one key insight I gained today in my seminar was something I knew all along intuitively, but the presenter has given me the words to express it. The presentation concerned itself with interventions for mental health disabilities, for General Anxiety Disorder in particular. In describing the disorder and helpful approaches, the presenter said, “Save intensity of affect for the good things; for correction or confrontation be matter of fact.” This makes great sense logically and emotionally, yet it is counter-intuitive to the way most parents handle the stresses of parenting. Most of us, when we have an aggressive fifteen-year-old male screaming in our face, or a snippy adolescent female enumerating the inadequacies of her seemingly pathetic parents, respond with intensity. As the adrenaline of the encounter courses through our blood stream our reptilian brain urges us to respond with intensity, to fight adolescent animosity with adult rage. This intensity of affect is not helpful; it only draws us into our adolescents’ spiraling emotions and creates a sense of powerlessness within our own psyches.

Save intensity of affect for the good things, the presenter says, and approach conflicted situations with a matter of fact approach. Over the past few months I have attempted to be more intentional in this way. When I find myself in the midst of a conflict, I am attempting to identify my own rising irritation in order to regulate my emotion. If you happen upon me speaking very softly and quietly, looking into the eyes of my child, you will know that I am in a very emotionally aroused state, and that by sheer willpower I am choosing to flatten my affect. It is a very difficult task, because that is not the way I (nor most humans) have been socialized. But it does diffuse the situation rather quickly (in most cases) as well as offering me the freedom of having no emotional regrets afterward. I mean, how guilty can a parent feel after an emotional enounter if the most you can say about yourself is that you were very quiet and spoke so softly your child had to stop screaming to hear your words? And believe me, I’ve had many opportunities to practice this technique over the past few days with two of my most reactive sons.

Final reflection: if, in the next eight years, Tony can make as much progress as Kyle has in the past eight years, the world will be a better place, and I will be a happier dad.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Arizona Travelogue Day Five: An Out-of-Water-Fish Stirring The Currents

You might wonder why anyone would travel to Phoenix in June. As the temperature rose today to nearly 110 degrees, I too, have wondered, but the real reason we’re even here in Arizona is so that I can participate in a conference sponsored by the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention. Five weeks ago I received an email describing the conference, “Mental Health Service Delivery For Youth in Detention/Corrections.” This email arrived around the same time Claudia and I had been in court with our seventeen-year-old son, so the relevancy immediately caught my attention. As I read further I discovered that there were a limited number of scholarships, including travel and lodging expense, to attend, so I applied and was accepted.

I have participated in many conferences over the years, most of which relate to my pastoral vocation, but some of which have related to youth advocacy. It has been some time since I have related with a large number of people outside of my vocational discipline, so I have been looking forward to this opportunity. Today was the first day of the conference.

There are ninety participants from across the United States, most from the west coast, but a number of us from other parts of the country as well. As best I can tell I am the lone Minnesotan here. I am surrounded by probation officers, juvenile detention directors and officers, a California Superior Court Judge, and therapists for incarcerated juveniles. It is an interesting crowd, and what I find most interesting is the shared sense of advocacy on behalf of troubled youth. Although we are from disparate backgrounds (my background being perhaps the most unusual in the group), there is a sense of camaraderie and commitment to find ways to provide mental health care for youth in custody.

I have an agenda in being here. If this were January my agenda might be quite selfish, as I would be soaking up the sun and enjoying the warmth of a desert climate in the midst of a cold Minnesota winter. But this is June in the desert after all, and my agenda, while personal, is not that selfish. My agenda is to be a voice for kids in the system who do not receive the mental health resources they need. More specifically, my agenda arises from the disappointing experience we have had in regard to our seventeen-year-old son who spent the better part of two years in social services custody with little helpful mental health intervention. Now that he has started his “corrections” career (as the professionals have put it), perhaps he will get what he needs, but I am yet dubious. Every day I grieve for my lost son, every day I wonder in my heart if we did the right thing in involving him in the social services system in an attempt to find some answers for him. And every day I am angry that he has less chance of success today than he did three or four years ago before his system involvement. I am angry with the system for the lack of care he has received, for the ways we have been disrespected and mistreated in the process. And I will not be silenced.

Like most conferences, this conference is divided into table groupings. Part of the daily task is to discuss issues with others at one’s table and then report back to the large group. Today we did introductions, and I can state with some confidence that of the ninety participants, I am the only parent in the room who has a son in custody. My table group found my story compelling and urged me to share it with the whole group, which I agreed to if selected. (Because of the size of the conference, the conference leaders select four or five tables per issue to report back to the large group). I said, “Sure, I’ll be happy to share our story if our table is picked.” In the first round of table picks, our table, number nine, was the first table picked to report to the large group. While I cannot speak for the faith orientation of others at my table, I sat back and marveled at what I understand to be God’s providence. Not only did my table group find our family’s story compelling, but I was the first one selected to speak.

And so I introduced myself. “I’m Bart Fletcher, from Minnesota, and I’m kind of a fish out of water here. I’m an ordained minister, my wife and I have adopted ten special needs kids, and our seventeen-year-old son is in custody.” There was a silence in the room, which I expected, and which I used to my advantage.

“Our frustration has been the inadequate ways our son’s situation has been handled. He has received little in the way of mental health intervention, and the sole therapeutic intervention he has had while in custody resulted in his manipulation of the therapist to report back to the court that we are neglectful and abusive parents. We are frustrated that in our efforts to advocate on his behalf and his foundational disability of FASD, we have been told that we are making excuses for his behavior. We are frustrated that the social services system after two years is relievedly washing their hands of him and is telling us that they’ve done all they can do now that he has started the corrections path. So, my story is that I am here to find ways to advocate for other kids like our son, in hopes that it will not be too late for them.”

As I glanced through the obligatory three-ring binder provided us, I was disheartened to see that amongst over fifty other mental health disorders enumerated and described, FASD was not mentioned one time. (I also pointed this out during my introductory speech to the whole group, which caused one of the conference leaderes to immediately connect with me on a break to express her affirmation of what Claudia and I are doing, as well as to suggest that they will do better work on presenting FASD issues in the future). In fact, to my knowledge, there is not a reference to pre-natal drug exposure at all as a complicating factor for many youth in custody. For me it points out the huge gap between the reality of the mental health needs represented by youth in custody and those who are providing training to those on the frontlines. I mean, if the United States Department of Justice, in their official training of juvenile corrections leaders, doesn’t acknowledge FASD or pre-natal drug exposure as contributing to delinquency, I think we have some significant issues before us.

I am not suggesting that the designers of the curriculum were ill-intended nor purposely excluding the FASD/pre-natal drug exposure issue. I am simply suggesting that even the trainers may be sadly disconnected from the realities many of these youth face, and I will not be complicit in that silence.

To their credit the presenters are clear that the system needs to respond in better ways to the mental health needs of youth in custody. But I am hopeful that the perspective of a parent with a child so challenged may be able to stir the currents of change.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Arizona Travelogue Day Four: Just To Be Alive Is a Grand Thing

Day number four in Arizona comes to a close. It is 8:30 PM, the strong sunlight of a hot day (108 degrees) has dipped below the horizon, and I sit in the twilight near the pool at the Sheraton Crescent Hotel. Tony is ambling about, toying with the idea of dipping into the pool, while Kyle is lounging in the room with his favorite lover (important note: Kyle’s favorite lover, from the very beginning, has been television). Although the sun has gone much of the heat remains. It is hot enough during the days to prevent my taking a walk (one of my favorite things to do generally, and especially in a new city). I attempted such a walk this afternoon, only to find myself subjected to a bleeding nose, the result of a combination of high heat, low humidity and a change in altitude for me.

Today was a lazy, irritating day. We moved from one hotel to another. We ate meals together. We watched television. I observed the consistent pattern of bickering, agitation and mutual annoyance between my two sons. There are times when the eight years separating them seem more like eight months. Tomorrow, however, the conference will begin, and I will see them only at meal times and in the evening. While it will be a break for me, I’m sure that Kyle will have reached his limit by the times I am free of meetings.

Tonight we decided we would eat Chinese. I googled a search for “Chinese food Phoenix” and got a number of hits. Confirming the location on Mapquest, we set out for our destination, some eight miles away. After driving and driving it was apparent that the restaurant in question was not where I thought it to be. By the time we figured that out, however, we found ourselves in a rather interesting part of town. We witnessed numerous homeless folks, liquor stores and strip joints. Sometimes the naivete of my oldest son make me smile (with relief). The front he wears makes it appear that he is worldly wise and deeply aware of the world around him. Because his major source of information is the television (see paragraph one above), he would have those around him belief that he is suave, sophisticated and street-wise. In those moments when he wears that image I sometimes experience parental angst, wondering if I know my son as well as I think I do. I was relieved tonight to witness his naivete. In this seamy side of town we passed what would have been called, in my grandmother’s day, “houses of ill repute,” each of which scurrilously advertises their wares, often in cryptic and, admittely, clever ways. One of those locations was called the “Nude Body Shop.” I made reference to the name as we drove by, and my oldest son said, “What’s that? A nude body shop?” I tried to keep my response muffled to avoid provoking younger son’s attention: “Strip joint.” “Oh, yeah. I guess so,” he replied with a smirk on his face. I am grateful for those glimpses into the relative innocence of my nineteen-year-old son.

And after those encounters I ponder internally how different life would have been for Kyle had he fallen through the cracks of the social services system and remained, on the one hand, with a drug-addicted, neglectful birth mother or, on the other hand, with a disinterested foster parent. Kids who grow up in those kinds of settings often see too much too soon in life, and by the time they are nineteen they are themselves involved in what society deems “adult” activity, whether it is illicit drug use, underage drinking or careless sexual expression. Though there are times when I think that given Kyle’s personality he would have turned out much the same as he has today, it is in these moments that I am reminded that Claudia and I have been able to safeguard some of his innocence, to provide him the opportunity to simply be a kid and assume adult roles at appropriate times in life. What would life have looked like for Kyle as a nineteen-year-old aged out of foster care or embedded in the multi-generational dysfunctions of his birth family? Much, much different I have to believe.

As we drove along we also witnessed the sad effulgence of the homeless in Phoenix. My understanding is that Phoenix has a huge homeless population because of its year-round pleasant climate. Near a bus stop Kyle spotted a shirtless, unwashed, man asleep on the sidewalk, his burned skin reddening in the blazing afternoon temperatures. He pointed him out and then said little. I tried to add a note of compassion to the situation, adding that chances are this man is mentally handicapped and/or chemically dependent.

A few blocks later he said, “I don’t know how people can stand to live this way.” “What way is that, Kyle?” I asked. “You know, poor.” Knowing very well Kyle’s own birth history, I refrained from upbraiding him, but said, “Well, poverty is a hard, hard thing to break out of, especially if you’ve never known anything else and if you don’t have the chance to go to college or have anyone help you get out.” He didn’t say much, but I know that human misery bothers him, although his take is the “we all have the ability and responsibility to get out of situations like that” mentality. I am hopeful that one day he will realize and be able to express the realization that his adoption provided him a way out that he might otherwise not have had. And I hope that he will realize one day that being poor is not a crime, but that those of us who have means and do nothing to pull people out of poverty are the ones who are criminal.

Ironically enough, we spent over an hour driving about Phoenix, only to discover that the restaurant in question was closed, long closed. And then, less than a mile from our hotel, we discovered a Chinese restaurant that fit our initial goals. We ate our meal in relative silence, all of us grateful for the opportunity to be distracted by others than ourselves.

Opening our fortune cookies, I found my fortune to be an especially appropriate way to conclude our day. In one succinct sentence, the fortune expresses my sentiments at the end of this day: “Just to be alive is a good thing.”

Tonight I will be able to sleep well, knowing that my family in Minnesota is well cared for by their mother. And I will be able to sleep well in my hotel room with two of my sons, believing again that adoption may just have saved each of them from a life filled with the everyday, dreary harshness of poverty, neglect and confusion. Sometimes just to be alive is a good thing.

Arizona Travelogue Day Three: A Day With the Grandparents


Claudia’s parents are a generation removed from my own. Her parents are closer in age to my grandmother (my grandmother is 87; Claudia’s father is 83), so visiting our children’s maternal grandparents is always interesting and always pleasant. Their lifestyle is a simple, focused one that emphasizes relationships with people and their Lord. Everything else is irrelevant.

For days I have been warning Tony that his grandparents view things differently than other good, church-going people he knows. I have been trying to educate him about the differences between mainline and fundamental Christian faith, seeking to remind him that words he uses in our home (not with our sanction, mind you) are not appropriate at grammy and grampa’s house. Phrases like “that sucks” or “oh my gosh” and certainly phrases like “oh my God” (which we do not like either) are not appropriate expressions in the presence of these dear saints of God. I had been hoping that my coaching to Tony would have some subliminal effect upon Kyle, too.

To my surprise and delight, both Kyle (which was not a big surprise; he is, after all, nineteen years old and has learned how to be very appropriate over the years) and Tony behaved like perfect gentlemen at the grandparents’. They expressed appropriate affection in normal ways (no small feat for adopted children with indemic attachment issues), had normal and appropriate conversations, and were relaxed and tolerant of a lifestyle quite different from their own.

The geographical setting of the grandparents’ home is the high desert of northern Arizona, where in June the temperatures can reach 100 degrees plus during the day and dip to the 40’s at night. It is desolate, sparsely populated, and lacking in amusement. In his inimitable way (and not with his grandparents present), Kyle said, “Dad, it would suck to live here. There’s like nothing to do.” I commiserated with his sentiments and suggested that he should feel some gratitude that our lifestyles were such that at least he didn’t have to live in geographically desolate climes. I’m sure he didn’t catch my nuance, but it made me feel better to believe we are offering our children options in life. On the high desert in the small, dust-encircled towns, there is little for teenagers and young people to do. It is no surprise that alcoholism, drug use and crime are at high levels.

We arrived early evening on Saturday night, spent the evening in pleasant conversation, enjoyed a piece of birthday cake and ice cream to celebrate my 42nd year of life. By 9:00 PM the grandparents were ready (and later than usual) for bed. The boys watched a little TV (I’ll never tell grammy and grandpa that their dish tv network was used by Kyle to watch a gambling tournament), and we all went to bed. It had, after all, been a long, exhausting day (see Arizona Travelogue part two).

On Sunday morning the grandparents skipped Sunday School (a significant value choice for these very committed Christian people) in order to spend an extra hour with us. We toured on foot the School where grammy teaches young Native American children, although it is always abysmal visiting any type of school in the off-season. Seeing the classrooms and offices and buildings is so much less invigorating than the hear the din of students eating a meal together or to view the parade of youngsters heading to a group gathering. For Tony the higlight of the tour was seeing both a rabbit and a skink. For Kyle there was no highlight, although he was polite and seemingly interested in what grammy was telling us.

Following the tour it was time for church, and I felt a gnawing sense of anxiety in my stomach. Not for myself (because I had grown up in a sister church denomination and understand the ethos of Christian life in these cirlces), but for my two boys who have only known mainline United Methodism. Even though their father is evangelical to the core, my sons have had little experience outside of our United Methodist tradition, and as diverse as United Methodism can be, our Minnesota ethos has been consistently affirmed in the churches I have served as pastor.

The church crowd this morning was slender, perhaps twenty of us. Because school is not in session, and because this is a church that many of the staff and teachers attend, the low attendance was not a surprise. And because I have pastored churches years ago of this size it was not an unusual or uncomfortable experience for me. Even when the song leaders announced that we would be singing acapella, it reminded me of other times in my life. Truth be known, the reason I began to sing in church is because of necessity. Throughout high school and college I generally did not sing at all in worship services, but in the real world of pastoral life discovered I had to sing in order to lead and often because I had no musical accompaniment in the early days. We sang songs all of us were familiar with (that helped ease the tension for my sons, I think), and also sang traditional songs (“Called Unto Holiness,” a hymn my sons have most certainly never heard nor sung). There was a brief time of sharing concerns and a brief pastoral prayer followed by the Lord’s Prayer.

From my peripheral vision I could see that the younger of my two sons was thinking church was about over. It had been, after all, nearly forty-five minutes since we had begun worship. By this time in our United Methodist tradition things are beginning to wind down. But we were not worshiping in a United Methodist Church; it was time for the sermon, and for the next forty minutes we heard of the transfiguration experience of Peter, James and John as they accompanied Jesus to the mountaintop and met Elijah and Moses.

The grandparents’ pastor is passionate, genial and a direct communicator. Not one to be inhibited by the pulpit he was a few feet away from us and asked numerous rhetorical questions, as well as questions intended to be answered. As is customary in an evangelical church of this type, there were many phrases my boys are unaccustomed to hearing during worship: “Amen,” “That’s right,” “Yes, Jesus,” “Thank you, Lord.” At first it was novel for them, and then they settled into the regularity of the environment.

We were enjoined to seek an experience of God such as the three with Jesus had on the mount of transfiguration. “Could it be today?” the pastor questioned throughout his sermon. We left worship understanding that an intimate experience with God is not only possible, but necessary and available for those who seek Him. (And for those reading these wordes of mine with inclusive language sensitivities, it is “Him”).

The service ended rather abruptly with a final familiar hymn (“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”) and a pastoral benediction, and we were on our way out. Like most churches of its size (the “family” church), there are those who are friendly and take time to greet visitors, and there are those who feel outsiders to be a bit intrusive. We were treated with gracious welcomes, although there were several more interested in talking to one another than to their visitors. (Note to self: remember how prevalent this is in most churches, and be intentional in addressing it again and again in my new appointment).

The three of us left church together to meet the grandparents at their home, which provided an opportunity for a little debriefing. “That church was really weird” were the words I first heard from my younger son. When I asked why he was unable to articulate what this meant, but stuck with his story. Kyle asked, “So dad, what did you think of that?” I said, “Well, I think these are very committed Christian people who know the Lord and really want others to know him, too.” Those of you who know me understand that this sentence is rather unlike me ... although I share the same passion, my verbiage is different, but I wanted to capture with words the worship context we had just experienced.

We didn’t talk much more about our worship experience, but it did cause me to think again about my own departure from a denomination like this one into the mainline. I suppose one of my continuing internal conflicts is justifying to myself why I am a United Methodist. As a result of my worship experience on Sunday, I can make a few assertions with confidence.

(1) I am a United Methodist because we see the world as our parish. We understand our mission to be one of both evangelical love as well as social justice. I was troubled to hear the grandparents’ pastor say, “We are not concerned about the world today; we are conerned about our church today.” And although I know what he meant (that it was time to focus upon the needs of the immediate context), I am glad to be part of a denominational family in which “the world” is always in our purview.

(2) I am a United Methodist because it embraces a large view of life. By its very size (we are the second or third largest Protestant denomination in the United States, depending on which statistician you consult) we are diverse and embrace a large sense of life. Our stated ethos is to embrace the world, and while we often fall short of this goal, at least the standard is held high.

(3) I am a United Methodist because I believe God can speak through numerous channels. In his effort to emphasize the significance of transformational encounters through the Scriptures, the grandparents’ pastor asked, “Can you have a transformational experience through other books? No. It’s the holy word of God, and that’s where we need to spend our time, not reading all other kinds of books.” And again, while I understand his vantage point, I am grateful to be part of an ethos which encourages the opportunity to hear God’s voice in disparate, diverse avenues. I know personally the transformational experiences I have had in reading works other than the Scripture, and while I certainly hold to the foundational significance of scripture for Christian people, would be uncomfortable limiting God’s encounters.

I must, in honesty, though say that one of the things I miss deeply since my departure from the denomination of my youth is the centered, focused passion. These people have a deep and clear sense of life. Their worldview is well integrated into their lives, and they understand what really matters. While I may differ with them as to what matters (for example, I believe as strongly in the necessity for social justice as I do in evangelical conversion), these folks know their priorities and they live them. If only the slumbering, lumbering United Methodist Church could be passionate about what we purport to believe. A little passion could go a long way.

So, we closed our visit with the grandparents by eating lunch together at a Mexican restaurant in a nearby town, bid our farewells, and headed back to Phoenix, where we spent Sunday night. The lingering memories of a simple, focused, Christian lifestyle are ones I hope my two sons can take with them. And I think this is the way their grandparents would always want to be remembered.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Arizona Travelogue Day Two: So That's Why We Do This

It was another full day. Due to the time change (Arizona is two hours earlier than Minnesota time) I awakened early (5 AM Arizona time) this morning, spending a few quiet meditative moments before getting Tony up for breakfast. We decided to let Kyle sleep, and the two of us headed down for the “continental breakfast” our hotel offered. With plenty of carbohydrates plus some actual nutrition provided in fresh fruit, we added gas to our tank. Note that I said “added,” not “filled” the tank. Gasoline at the only station in the small town of Tusayan was $3.59 a gallon. Then I made a last-minute decision I had been brooding about for a day or so. I scheduled the three of us for a twenty-five minute helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. Although I have a strong aversion to heights and an inclination to motion-sickness, I decided to invest in an attempt to make some memories with these two sons.

We returned to our hotel room, where Kyle was up wondering where we had been. I told him the dreary details and then said, “However, I made a decision without your consent.” His eyebrows rose and his expression was quizzical. “I decided to schedule us for a helicopter tour of the Canyon.” His nineteen-year-old machismo and attempted impassability faded as a smile cracked his stoic face. “Sweet.” And then the echo I have come to expect over the years from this, our oldest son who is hoping his parents will help him finance a car this summer, “How much?” Holding up four fingers I witnessed the surprise and gratitude spread across his countenance. “Thanks, Dad. That’ll be dominant.”

In the next few minutes we packed our bags, checked out of the hotel and jumped in the car to spend our final two hours at the Grand Canyon. At 9:00 AM the cars and RVs were already stacked seven back in the four lanes headed to the Canyon. We hurriedly figured out the shuttle bus routine and hopped on a shuttle toward the western reaches of the Grand Canyon. Assessing our time limitations, we decided we could go only part of the way, so we visited three of the drop-off points and caught the return shuttle back, where we walked the half mile to our parking place before exiting the park.

The western extremes of the south rim of the Canyon are rustic (if you can call any site visited by literally millions of people a year “rustic”) and capture the essence of the Canyon experience. The views are ineffable. I saw my first sign of reptilia (or is it amphibia ... I forget), a pair of geckos gamboling across the rocks in the warming morning sun. To date the only snake I have seen has been breaded and on Tony’s dinner plate last night. I was hoping to have some kind of snake story to bring home with me, but it looks unlikely at this point.

We arrived at the airport (there really is a Grand Canyon Regional Airport) and were weighed and instructed about safety precuations while aboard the helicopter. I had been doing my best to repress my small aircraft (is a helicopter considered small aircraft?) phobias, and now there was no turning back.

Tony was fortunate enough to have the seat next to the pilot, right in the front where he could experience the Canyon in a very direct sort of way. Kyle and I were seated across from one another (I facing forward, fortunately, and he backward), and I could see from the excitment in his eyes that I had chosen an experience that would provide lifelong memories. We slapped the headphones on our ears as instructed (the roar of a helicopter is deafening ... I now understand why President Reagan could never answer a reporter’s question near a helicopter, and it wasn’t because of his age), and began to lift off from the ground. Viewing the trees and dry foliage from the air is not a difficult task for me. Knowing subconsciously that if we had to make an emergency landing we would be well cared for with the flat ground beneath us comforted me, although my stomach was already feeling the effects of the bumpy, jerky ride.

I did all right, really I did, until we crested the opening of the Canyon. To look down into the bowels of the earth is an awesome, frightening experience. I could tell that Tony was experiencing no difficulties with his flight, and Kyle was eagerly looking about, snapping a few pictures here and there, including one he asked me to take of him strapped into his efficient helicopter safety gear. The cold sweat breaking out on my body reminded me that my preference is most assuredly a terra firma one. I did my best to hide my discomfort from both boys – and I think I succeded on that account – as I worked to convince myself to enjoy the trip. (There are all sorts of ways to do this, one of which is the “Remember how much you paid for this” recitation).

And the fact of the matter is, I did enjoy the trip. To have the opportunity to see the Grand Canyon from the air is spectacular, and I am grateful that our family, though often stretched financially, is able to off these kinds of opportunities to our kids.

Upon our return Tony and Kyle affirmed their enjoyment of the experience, we purchasded the obligatory family-with-copter-picture and headed east toward the other end of the Canyon. The views from the east are equally as lovely, perhaps even moreso in my estimation. The Watchtower site is one of my favorites, I think.

And so we began our trek east and south to Grammy and Grampa’s. We passed through the Kaibab National Forest (an interesting use of the word “forest” I would surmise through my Minnesota-influenced viewpoint of forest equaling massive ranges of trees and undergrowth), and through Native American reservation land. We laughed together at the signs for one of the pull-off Native America sales sites. “Friendly Indians ahead,” said the sign. “Nice Indians here,” the final sign declared. Not sure if this is Native American humor playing to the Old West lore time has forgotten, but it did make us chuckle together.

We spent an hour or so at the Meteorite Crater site near Winslow, Arizona, another fascinating feat of nature. The Crater, originally named “Franklin’s hole” for its discoverer decades ago, is the largest known example of a site where a meteorite has crashed into the atmosphere of earth and ravaged the surfaces. It is nearly two miles in circumference and provides an eye-opening opportunity to consider what the next meteorite crashing into earth might look like.

By now it was approaching 5 PM and we had promised the grandparents we would be there no later than 7, so we launched into our final moments on the hot, dusty Arizona portion of I-40, a trucker’s paradise. As we drove along, I was mentally calculating the expense of our day, when eleven-year-old Tony, oblivious to the costs of life, asked about yet one more way to spend some money. Kyle, frustrated by his younger brother’s incessant demands excoriated, “You’re so greedy, Tony. Dad has already spent lots of money on us today.” I kind of glanced at Kyle and said, “Well, Kyle, you were eleven once, and you seemed to have learned something about the value of money in the past eight years.” “Yeah, college has opened my eyes about that,” was his reply. “And so,” I said, “I think Tony will figure this out someday, too. He won’t be eleven forever.” I got no response, which for Kyle is a rather telling indicator.

A few miles later Kyle said, “You know this trip would have been a lot cheaper if it had just been you, dad.” I knew it was his way of saying, “Thank you,” and so I said, “Yeah, I know. But I have discovered that this is one of the few things that parents can do to make a lasting difference with their kids.” “What do you mean?” He asked, assuming I meant that spending money was the equivalent of good parenting. “I mean that part of being a parent is spending time with and spending money on in order to make some good, lifelong memories that the kids will always have.” “Yeah, I guess so,” was his respectful-enough rejoinder.

And then I realized something I have been struggling to make sense of for months, maybe even years. Why do parents put up with the bickering, the begging, the whining, the manipulating, the inconvenience of trips like this? Because it creates the opportunity for life-long memories.

And how is it that my children, adopted and not ours by birth, can experience this as an advantage? Because the memories we are helping to create for our children are giving them a childhood, a childhood that would have looked much different had they been consigned to continuing neglect, abuse or deprivation. Their early years and memories may be filled with neglect or abuse or lack, but perhaps trips like these can help them feel that there is something innately worthy in their existence, that they are worth spending money on, and that they are precious children of God who deserve to have some moments that are filled with generosity, self-lessness (on the part of their parents, anyway) and simple fun.

Yeah, so that’s why we do this.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Arizona Travelogue Day One: How I Spent My 42nd Birthday


The travelogue that I begin today will have a different “feel” than my typical blog entries. If you are seeking introspective, heart-felt missives, this will not suit that need. If, however, you are interested in factual, pithy sorts of entries, this may be what you are looking for.

It is currently 8:30 PM Arizona time (10:30 PM Minnesota time), and I am seated near the outside pool at our nice but over-priced hotel. Tony is lounging in the hot tub, while Kyle is in the room receiving his daily supply of electronic stimulation. It has been an interesting day with the two of them. Tony is more garralous than I remembered and cannot be quiet for more than ninety seconds. I’m not sure if this is his personality or his disability, but either way it proves tiresome to an introvert like myself. I have been as patient as I can possibly be – and Kyle, surprisingly, more so – but the incessant chatter wears me down emotionally and physically.

Of course the physical weariness could also be from the stress of the day. I awakened this morning a little after 6 AM Minnesota time, discovered Tony already up watching TV (the boy doesn’t sleep), and roused Kyle from his nineteen-year-old slumber. By 7:30 or so we were on the road to the airport, some ninety minutes away. Our check-in process was slow but uneventful (although it was fun to see Kyle turned back at the security checkpoint because he forgot to remove his cell phone and keys from his pocket. I say that it was fun because typically I am the one who forgets something in the process and find myself subjected to his derision.

Our flight to Phoenix was long and turbulent, so we arrived at 1:15 PM Phoenix time with my equilibrium a bit askew. We acquired our rental car and began the arduous trip four hours north in 106 degree heat. As the elevation escalated we discovered that our car’s heat gauge responded accordingly, so at moments we turned off the air conditioning in order to avoid overheating. With the sparse geography between towns on the way to northern Arizona we decided we didn’t want to take the chance of having a breakdown. We witnessed a number of disillusioned-looking travelers suffering that plight.

It was at about this time that we discovered we had our digital camera with us but that the battery pack was still in Luverne, merrily charging in the bathroom outlet. A grave disappointment, especially now that we have arrived at the Grand Canyon, one of the eight wonders of the world.

The four hours to Tusayan, Arizona, were repetitive, and I’m not sure who suffered more: Tony from his perlexing never-ending yapping, Kyle from his ill-fated attempts to practice patience with an irritating eleven-year-old, or me absorbing the interaction of both and attempting to maintain some emotional calm for all of us. I can indeed affirm that the apocryphal, “Are we there yet?” is more than cliche. It lives. And it will live, I am afraid, quite often in the next five days the three of us have to spend together.

By the time we arrived at our hotel tonight we were ready for a change of pace. We checked in, moved our stuff into the room and decided to experience the old West by eating at the Hippie Hi Ai steakhouse. There were far cars parked in front, and we wondered why, but soon discovered it was the high prices. The atmosphere was ranchy (horsehide and cowhide rugs, saddles, straw on the floor, servers dressed in old west apparel). Our waitress spoke with a thick Russian accent, was dressed in tight blue jeans, bandana and a cowboy hat. She, with her Hispanic-American servers, presented quite an interesting drama (without intending to) due to the melange of cultures in the building. Tony tried rattlesnake for the first time in his life, Kyle nibbled it a bit (and declared “Yeah, I won’t need to try rattlesnake again”) and then derided me for not succumbing to their entreaties to eat reptile. I maintained my stance that I will not eat something I fear and loathe.

After dinner we decided to hit the Canyon and witness the natural beauties of sundown. I gulped as I paid $25 for our seven-day pass (of which we will use one day), but chalked it down to “once in a lifetime.” It is simply not possible to explain in words the expansive grandeur of such a gift of nature. With the near-full moon rising in the east and the mellow red tones of sundown from the west, the shadowed vastness of the Canyon is breathtaking. The soft breezes and inchoate whispers of the eons lull one into a reverential mood.

My reverential mood was mitigated, of course, by a series of discourses delivered to the youngest son with me about the need to stay behind the guardrails. He remains convinced that the native trails roiling a mile down are his for the taking, and that I purposely have kept him from the adventure of his lifetime. I calmly explained that when he was an adult on his own time that he could climb where he pleased, but while he was on my watch he would not be tempting fate. He is not yet convinced.

Tomorrow we will visit the National Geographic Visitor Center with an Imax Theater and then set out for some day hiking. Earlier in the day I explained to Kyle that the recommendation is that no one hike all the way to the bottom of the Canyon and back up in one day, but rather that one hike down and then rest overnight before returning to the top. Before seeing the immensity of the Canyon he wasn’t sure I was right, but once we arrived his terse commentary was “I see what you mean, Dad.”

So, that’s how I spent my 42nd birthday. And and all things being equal, I rather enjoyed it.