Friday, September 22, 2006

Nothing At All

Tonight I am in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, awaiting a meeting involving others from across the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. I have been involved in such leadership for the past five years, so I have driven many miles to fulfill my responsibilities in that time. Until our move this past June my drive was 240 miles one way, so driving time was the equivalent of one work day. Now my drive time is 1-1/2 hours one way, so until I get used to the diminished transit time I always feel a little surprised when I hit the southern suburbs of the metro area in such a short period of time. While I do miss the wide, expansive prairie lands of my former sojourn, I am soothed by the fewer miles to travel.

This has been a day of surprises in other ways as well. Knowing that I would be here for my meeting tomorrow, I contacted our oldest son a few days ago to see if he would like to get together. I promised Mike (our seventeen-year-old and birth brother to Kyle, our nineteen-year-old college junior) that he could make the trip with me. He hasn't seen Kyle since Christmas, and I thought it would be a good way to encourage Mike's continuing progress. Our trip to the Cities was uneventful. Mike was feeling sick, so he was quiet most of the way. I had wondered how the trip might go, and given Mike's propensity for argumentation, I worried a bit. Surprise number one: it was a pleasant, non-descript trip.

We arrived at Kyle's apartment, picked him up and headed off the eat dinner together. Again, I was wondering how things might unfold as Kyle and Mike talked together for the first time in nine months. Their relational style is often acrimonious and provocative, so I waited to see. Surprise number two: the conversation was appropriate, tinged with their historical relational patterns, but tolerable.

Mike and I decided to let Kyle decide which movie we would see after dinner. He announced to us that we would be seeing Grid Iron Gang, which sounded like a football movie to me. Those who know me can attest that I am one of the world's worst sports fans, so I didn't know what to expect. Surprise number three: the movie turned out to be quite good, and while football was the pretext, it was really a movie about redemption.

While I won't spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it yet, I especially was touched by two profoudn moments. The first occurs in the opening frames where this text (or something like it) appears: "Each year 120,000 youth find themselves in juvenile detention facilities across the country. Of those released each year, 75% will find themselves back in custody or dead [within a specified period of time I no longer remember]." The voice-over then says (and I paraphrase): "For some sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, a poor choice such as a speeding ticket or showing up drunk at prom or breaking curfew results in the loss of driving privileges or grounding. For other youths the result of a poor choice results in incarceration." Surprise number four: I am sitting in a theater next to my near-model nineteen-year-old son and his recently-released-from-a-Department-of-Correction-Facility seventeen-year-old birth brother, about to view together with them a movie very close to Mike's recent experience.

The theme of redemption is a multi-layered one in this film. The incarcerated youth who through the efforts of their "coach" find new life, the "coach" himself who finds an opportunity to forgive, and the system itself find opportunities for redemption. Surprise number five: I enjoyed a football movie ... although, as I said, it really wasn't as much about football as about the salvaging of precious, though misguided, young adolescent male lives.

The second scene I found so moving involves the coach's mother, whom we observe through the film as she leaves behind her life due to a terminal illness. In one of their final conversations, the coach hears these words from his mother: "You are my greatest achievement in life. I have raised a good man." I am still struck by the powerful simplicity of her words. Surprise number six: My greatest achievement in life will be raising good men and women. There are so many things I wish to accomplish in my life. Perhaps that need is all the more aching these days as my 42-year-old consciousness reaches the mid-point of its life. But perhaps if the final words slipping from aged, parched lips on that day long in the future could be: "You [my children] are my greatest achievement. I have raised good men and women" I will find fulfillment.

There is little else that is so foundational to the "good life" as children who have been redeemed from histories of neglect, abuse and hopelessness. In the midst of day-to-day living with ten children I forget this truism that a very wise woman repeats to me as a mantra: "We don't parent for joy now. We parent because it's the right thing to do; the joy will come later."

As we left the theater and traveled back to Kyle's apartment (where Mike will spend the night with his older brother whom he has loved and respected from the beginning) I was tempted to say a lot. I wanted to tell Mike that I was as proud of him for completing his Thistledew program as the coach in the movie had been proud of his "boys" for bonding together as a team. I wanted to remind Kyle of just how much Mike idolizes him and how the night they have together could be an opportunity to reinforce good values. I wanted them to realize how fortunate all humans, and especially they, have to experience "redemption."

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that post-movie moralizing is irritating and counterproductive for late-adolescent males. There are moments that a father and two sons spend together that are better left unanlyzed and unprocessed, so that the raw material of the evening can be subliminally digested without parental intrusion. And so, the final and number seven surprise: sometimes it's better to simply say nothing at all.

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