Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Spiritual Strength of a Large Family

I have been reflecting today upon the life of Macrina the Younger, born on this day in 379 AD. She was one of ten children in her family, which in itself is not unusual. For me what is distinctive is that she and three of her brothers are recognized as strong Christian leaders in the burgeoning Christian movement of sixteen centuries ago. It may be that all of her siblings exemplified Christian living, but it is she and three of her brothers, Basil the Great, Peter of Sebaste and Gregory of Nyssa, who are remembered for their spiritual lives.

As the father of ten children myself, I have to speculate about what these four children found in their family life that spurred them to live so faithfully that their memoirs have been preserved for centuries. While there is not a great deal of scholarly material upon which to build my case, I would offer at least the following speculative judgments:

(1)Their Christian faith heritage was strong. Macrina is called "the Younger" to distinguish her from her grandmother, first named Macrina and first to accept and experience Christian faith. It was the older Macrina who had lived with her husband during the early years of Roman persecution against the Christian faith. Avoiding death until the reign of Constantine (who has met with mixed reviews over the years for his role in "Christianizing" the Empire), the family maintained their Christian convictions for generations.

(2)Their Christian faith heritage was lived. To pass faith on to those who follow us takes more than creedal recitation or perfunctory mealtime prayers. If any of us who are parents intend to pass faith on to our children, it will be because we have made choices in the presence of our children that identify us as people of faith. We will find ways to speak of our ethical decision-making that are authentic to who we are and in ways our children can understand. Passivity in our lives of faith will never engender value in the generations to follow us.

(3)Their elders in the faith allowed them to answer God's call. When Macarina's husband-to-be died, she understood God calling her to a life of singleness in order to devote herself to an intentional spiritual life. We who are parents need to nurture and tend to the voice of God in our children's lives, hearing even when they are unable to, and encouraging them to follow God even when we may be unsure.

(4)Their family ties were bolstered by their Christian ties. The mother and father of this family died before the children had entered adulthood, so Macarina, as the oldest of the ten, took upon herself the responsibility of raising the younger. Again, this is not an unusual situation; however, what is distinctive is that she nurtured the spiritual lives of her siblings, providing moral and spiritual guidance.

The spiritual strength of this larger famiiy is shown in the results. Three of her brothers became bishops in the church, at least one of her brothers became a monastic leader, and she is remembered for a life of faithful service to God. In the midst of difficult sitautions -- family size, the premature death of parents, the role of women in her society -- Macarina's large family exuded spiritual strength and vitality, remembered even to this day, sixteen hundred years later.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Bearing Chris[t]

Today I officiated at the funeral of a sixteen-year-old. Over the past seven years I watched from a distance as he grew up. One of my earliest memories of him involves the church Christmas program early in our days at the Luverne church. Our son John (who is Hispanic), Chris (who was biracial) and an unremembered caucasian kid (sorry for the lapse in memory) were the three wise men in what was a culturally inclusive first at the church. During the years to follow I read the newspaper accounts of his sporting exploits and of his academic pursuits. I saw him frequently in worship services and then nearly every Wednesday night for three school years during the confirmation process. Chris was the community's "golden boy," and his parents' pride and joy. Chris was adopted when he was about a month old, a sudden surprise in the lives of his parents. I overheard his mother say last night at the visitation, "Chris left us in the same way that he came to us ... suddenly."

Christopher's life came to a screeching halt on Wednesday afternoon, July 5. He was traveling south of the small town in which he lived, had talked with girlfriend a few minutes earlier and said, "I'll see you in ten minutes. I love you." Those were the last words he was to speak. Within minutes his life was ended as he made an impromptu U-turn on a dangerous rural intersection. A semi driver, unable to stop quickly enough, broadsided the car in which he was driving. He was killed instantly.

Claudia called me with the news within hours and my initial shock led to a sense of deep grief and despair. Although Chris and I were never close ... I was his pastor, and his family were parishioners ... there is something about watching a child grow into a young man and following his athletic and academic career that creates an amorophous connection. When I discovered that his parents were asking me to officiate at his funeral, I was overwhelmed, knowing there were several issues to be resolved before I could say "yes." Chief among them regarded the pastoral ethics of the situation. When we pastors move to a new place of ministry, we are expected to do just that. To maintain pastoral ties with a previous congregation creates challenges for a new pastor and robs a new congregation of the pastoral ministry to which it is entitled. My successor at Luverne was out of town for a two-week continuing education experience, so he and I talked about the situation. Graciously he extended to me the courtesy to return "home" to officiate.

So, yesterday afternoon I left, met with the family, and spent the next four hours at the visitation, a mute witness to the community's support of grieving parents. I had the opportunity to visit with numerous friends from Luverne and to share in their shock and grief, so while it was emotionally exhausting, it was also deeply meaningful for me personally.

Today we gathered to say goodbye to Christopher. The service was held in the school gymnasium and held hundreds of family, friends and community members. Without question this was the hardest funeral service I have had. In over twenty years of pastoral ministry, I have burried 150 to 200 people -- some of whose services also verged on tragic -- but not like this, with a youth cut down before the prime of his life.

I shared today with the gathered crowd what the name "Christopher" means. From the Latin and romance family of languages, Christopher means "bearer of Christ." I didn't know Chris well enough outside of the church doors to know whether he spoke in words about his faith. Like most sixteen-year-olds, I suspect he verbalized little. But I am coming to realize that there are many ways in which we who are created in God's image bring glory to the Creator. In the case of this young man, God's glory was seen in his academic achievement, his athletic prowess, and his enthusiasm for life. I asked the congregation to think of ways that Chris was a bearer of Christ, and ways in which each of us could bear Christ, taking the seeds gathered from Chris's life into our own.

One of the most moving parts of this experience for me has to do with Chris's Personal Expression of Faith. In the confirmation process, the third year project is for the confirmand to create something that expresses their sense of faith in God. Fourteen months ago Chris created a life-size cross for his Personal Expression of Faith. It was so large, in fact, that we couldn't get it in the church doors. It stood in our church's courtyard for the days leading up to the service of confirmation, and as I walked by it day after day I smiled to myself as I thought of how appropriate it was for Chris to create such a large cross. Chris's approach to life has always been to excel, to produce, to be bigger and better, flashy, extravegant.

Today the cross Chris created to express his faith is the one that marks the accident site which took his life. The cross he created was plain, unadorned, stately. Tonight, amidst the hot humid air of early July, prairie grasses ebb and flow with the breezes of life, as Chris's cross finds itself adorned with gifts from friends. A football helmet, athletic shoes, a Hershey bar, balloons ... these reminders of his life are gathered near the cross he created to express his faith in God.

And today the one named "Christ-bearer" is borne in the arms of Christ, a beloved child Home ... too early by all human accounts, but Home with the One who knew him first.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Melange of Emotions

In the past twenty-four hours I have experienced an unrivaled melange of personal emotion. By personality type I am an introvert, so most of my emotional work is internally processed. By ethnicity I am a northern European, so emotional expression is genetically impaired. By geographical location I am a Minnesotan, so public display of emotion is considered socially uncouth. But I have wept more in the past twenty-four hours, I think, than I have in the past ten years.

Claudia and I had a delightful Fourth of July with friends from Luverne. We enjoyed our visit, our kids enjoyed spending time with their kids, and it was soothing to be with people we've known for seven years now. When they set off for "home" it felt a bit strange, for when I think "home" I still think "Luverne." I am not quite emotionally situated in Mankato enough to see it as "home" yet.

So anyway, after that enjoyable diversion on the Fourth of July, I awoke early yesterday to get three of my kids and myself ready to be in the church parking lot at 8:00 AM, not an easy feat after getting to bed very late after the evening prior's fireworks extraveganza. In our new community the three United Methodist Churches have a three-day camp at one of our Annual Conference's camps for 4th, 5th and 6th graders from the churches. All the pastors and the churches' childrens' staff people are a part of this annual event. It was a strange feeling to be the unknowns in this large group of parents and campers gathering outside the church that is now "ours." I recognize only a few faces and after two Sunday's "in the pulpit" there aren't that many who know me yet, and some who have not yet met me.

After we loaded into vehicles, we began our two-hour trek to the north. I was fortunate to have as my navigator one of the other UM pastors in town, and we had a spirited discussion along the way about church politics and pastoral life. On the way we passed through one of the communities where I had experienced a very difficult three years of ministry in another denomination. Just driving through the community brought back to me the disillusionment of those days, now fifteen years past.

We kept pressing on toward our camp, which is situated within fifteen minutes' drive of the pastoral appointment I served prior to my seven years in Luverne, so I began to think about the early days of Claudia's and my marriage. The camp we drove into is the first camp our oldest son Kyle attended shortly after we adopted him, so I was drawn back to the early days of adoptive experience.

At this point I was beginning to feel the melancholy sense of disorientation. Where is my home? In the course of less than one day I had experienced my home of fifteen years ago, my home of ten years ago, my home of seven years ago, and my new "home," which really isn't "home" yet.

Late yesterday afternoon I received a cell phone message from Claudia, describing for me a horrific tragedy in our not-quite-forgotten-"home" of Luverne. A high school junior (this fall) was tragically killed in a car-semi accident, and the family was hoping I could return "home" to Luverne to officiate. My heart fell. My eyes ached. My emotions collapsed.

One of the complicating factors of the request regards pastoral transition ethics. In our United Methodist system, which is appointive (that is, our Bishop sends us to our places of pastoral service; it is not congregational polity), we have a very clear ethical understanding that once a pastor leaves his or her appointed place of service, it is not appropriate to return back, especially not within a few weeks' time since departure. Within a few minutes I discovered that their new pastor is away for two weeks for continuing education leave, so he couldn't be immediately contacted. I contacted our District Superintendent, explained the situation, and asked for his advice. He agreed to call the new pastor to see what would be his preference. Within a few more minutes I received a gracious call from Pastor Donn who affirmed the family's choice and consented to my return for the service.

As I stood in the midst of the prairie grass at the campground (that's where I could receive the best cell phone reception), I reeled from the emotional melange ... I had revisited the past fifteen years of my life and ministry and stood facing one of the most formidable pastoral challenges of my career.

I have officiated many funerals in my twenty years of pastoral work. I would estimated that I have buried between 150 and 200 people in these years, yet I have never had to bury someone as young as this sixteen-year-old. I have had difficult funerals, but none in which I have watched the person in question grow up from the age of nine to sixteen. I have, likewise, confirmed the faith of numbers of high school students, but never have had to bury someone I have confirmed. I have preached to varying numbers of people over the years, but never to the multiple hundreds expected to be present for this funeral on Saturday afternoon. (It will be held in the school gymnasium, appropriately enough, for a student athlete who spent many hours of practice on the very floors which will now support his life-riven body).

I am deeply honored by the family's request, but I am terrified by the significance of this moment. To return to my "home"-that-is-no-longer-my-home to preach to a community-that-is-no-longer-my community in the midst of trauma and grief is a task that brings me to an emotional and spiritual place I have not yet experienced in my life. I alternate between denial and grief-stricken sobs. In my home-that-will-become-my home where I now reside, I can afford to be broken and filled with fear, but when I return to the "home"I am most familiar with but no longer a part of I will need to find an inner strength and serenity that I have not previously had to summon.

In the melange of emotions, I believe I will find a renewing strength that comes from God's very own self. I have yet to find this strength, but I must press forward ... to be Christ's ambassador to a family traumatized by the unthinkable, to a community seeking answers to the unanswerable, and for myself, human messenger that I am of a divine Parent who understands what is to lose His only son.

May God's strength be revealed in the days ahead.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Some things in time do not become fine

Mention the word "adoption" in an ordinary group of people and you will find certain shared themes. When a birth mother (almost never does a birth father immediately come to mind) is mentioned you might hear phrases like, "I can't imagine how difficult a decision that would be." Or, in a less sensitive group, "Who could ever give away her baby?" When an adoptive parent is mentioned you might hear, "What a good thing to do." "They must be saints." Or, again, with less sensitive people making certain assumptions, "So, whose problem [referencing fertility issues] is it ... hers or his?" "So, how much does it cost to adopt a child," with the assumption being that adoptive parents must have monetary acumen to finance such a venture. And, when "adopted child" floats through a group, most people immediately think "baby."

Our adoptive experience is much different than the scenario many people imagine when they hear "adoption." All ten of our children have been adopted as "older children," the youngest entering our lives at nine months of age, the oldest at eleven years of age. While we have changed our share of diapers, warmed milk for bottles, and taught youngesters to read and write, we have not had the experiences many parents (adoptive or otherwise) have in the very first weeks of their children's lives. That's not all that bad, if it's sleepless nights and twenty-four hour care you wish to avoid. But it is bad if it's attachment and bonding you are concerned with.

I assume it's pretty well common knowledge by this point in our society's lifespan that the most critical moments in a person's life as the first weeks and months after birth. It is in these primordial moments that the foundations of trust, nurture and contentment are built into tiny lives. Attachment issues in adoptive children are significant, even when a family adopts from the hospital birthplace, but even more so for families who adopt a child later in his or her life.

I was reminded again last night of just how primal this issue is for parents who adopt older children. I have become accustomed, over the years, to the episodic bantering about "birth parents" to the point where I don't think much about it. When I find myself with other families and their birth children, however, I discover that there is not the same preoccupation. In the typical family formed by birth relationships, there is little conversation about the beginnings of life. Sure, there are questions about "the day I was born" and "when did I come home from the hospital" and the like, but there is not the preoccupation associated with the loss of one's earliest caregivers.

Anyway, last night our sibling group of three and I were having a fairly ordinary conversation in our living room, when the wounds were opened once again. Our sibling group of three is comprised of one boy and two girls; they share the same birth mother, but the girls have a different birth father than the boy does. The discussion began innocently enough, with a teenage discussion about height and body shape, with predictions about eventual adult size. It was an ordinary family discussion until our older daughter suggested that she might be taller than our son because her birth father was taller than his. (Whether or not this is factually accurate is unknown, but a likelihood). In a split second our son remonstrated, "Shut the f___ up. You don't know what the hell you're talking about." This group of three is usually very tight and protective of one another, so his outburst was a shock their emotional system. Taken aback, our daughter (and their perpetually caught-in-the-middle loyalist birth sibling) said nothing and then escaped the room. Our nearly sixteen-year-old son began to sob, covering his face with a baseball hat, his body convulsing with emotional pain.

Our son is prone to manipulating others, so I often discount his emotional outbursts, or at least seek to keep my emotions in check so as not to enflame his tactics. But intuitively I sensed that last night's response was less about manipulation and more about the raw, sheer pain that comes from early years of neglect and abuse.

There was little I could do. He didn't want to talk with me about it (I asked in several different ways), he didn't want me to touch him; he just wanted to be left alone. I sat with him a few minutes in the shadowed living room, coaxed him to take his evening meds and left him with four banal words, "I love you, John." I say "banal" because the phrase seems so impotent in the face of such deep-seated pain disugised often as hostility and aggression.

While it may be true that some things in time become fine -- such as wine -- there are some things in time which do not become fine. Early years of trauma and pain are not erased, even after eight years in a stable, loving adoptive family.