Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Not My Mike, But One Day You Could Be

If you have read a fair share of my blog entries you know that I am a pastor. As a pastor I have the opportunity in multiple ways every day to interact with a wide variety of people. It's one of things I most enjoy about my vocational life, because no two days are ever the same. Over the years I have learned that God provides me with unique opportunities to intersect with others' lives, if I am willing to be open to these unplanned moments. And invariably, it seems that when I am meeting with someone who lives at the margins of society I am at that moment preoccupied with my concerns.

One of those moments occurred ten minutes ago. I had opened and was reading my most recent financial statement from our denominational pension plan, feeling pleased with the way my retirement plan investments have been performing over the past three months and feeling good to know that in twenty-five years or so when I retire there will be some security awaiting us.

In my momentary revelry I was interrupted by the intercom button to hear our administrative assistant announce, "Bart, there's someone to see you." I opened my door and Mike introduced himself. I asked him the customary, "How are you doing today?" and heard, "Well, not so bad seeing that I spent the night in my truck." It's always difficult to know how to respond appropriately and compassionately to such a response, so I simply said, "Come on in."

He explained to me that he had been at Salvation Army for the past several days (perhaps weeks) and that they had done all they could to assist him. Specifically he has a leaking tire that continues to go flat, which inhibits his ability to do any job search. (Our community does have some public transportation, but it operates nothing like the regularity of large metropolitan areas). Knowing that we have little in our benevolence fund, I offered Mike a couple of other options. He called one organization who couldn't provide any help, and I called another with little success.

And in the process, at the back of my mind, I heard once again God's inquiring voice. It went something like this ... "So, Bart, you're sitting here in your comfortable church office where it is warm and you have all the technology (and more) you need to do your work. You're scanning the financial results of your pension plan, which has built by the sacrifical giving of Christian people over the years of your ministry service. You're feeling good about your future because you see financial security in retirement. And you're not willing to do anything to help Mike fix his tire?"

It might have been the name that particularly attracted my attention this time, for Mike, as you may know, is the name of our seventeen-year-old son who has been diagnosed with an array of challenging issues and whose future looks a bit uncertain at this point in life. And so, in those brief moments of reflection and recognition, I had to say to myself, "What about when it's your Mike who is in a church office somewhere asking some pastor for assistance? What do you want that person to do for your Mike?"

The answer, of course, is obvious. I want my son Mike to be treated with dignity and compassion if and when the circumstances of his life force him to ask some hopefully friendly stranger for assistance.

And so I did what I should have done in the beginning. I said, "Mike, let's get your truck to a place where they can fix your tire, and I'll find a way to take care of it for you." So I called one of the tire stores, made arrangements for Mike's arrival and agreed to pay for the repair.

On his way out of my office door, his smile and three words were more than adequate, "Thanks. Bless you." No, Mike, bless you. You are not my Mike, but one day you could be.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

After Seventy Years We Have Still Not Done Enough

Yesterday two of my sons, Rand (18) and Anthony "Tony" (11), and I visited the Minnesota Orphanage Museum in Owatonna. Officially chartered in 1885 as the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children, over 10,000 walked through its doors until the mid-1940's when it was closed. Less than 5% of those children were ever adopted. Many of the children spent their entire "youth" in this institution until "aging out" at the age of eighteen. Over the years, especially in the early years, some of the children were subjected to "indenture contracts" which made them little more servants in a family. The contract stipulated that at the end of their indenture the family was responsible for providing them something like $200 and 2 sets of clothing. During the time they lived with the family they were to work, attend school at least four months of twelve, and were provided with food and board. It shocks me to think that as recently as seventy years ago this is the way "wards of the state" subsisted.

The visit to the Orphanage Museum was, in part, to fulfill academic requirements for both of these boys who are in a charter school, but largely it was for us to think together about what life might have been like for them had they been born seventy years earlier in our state. Rand, in particular, who is bi-racial, would have not fared very well. Those who lived at the State School as recently as the 1930s recall the difficulties for children whose heritage was non-white or of mixed heritage. (Check the museum website above for a number of written recollections that confirm what I write here).

As we arrived I said to my sons, "You realize that if you had been born seventy years ago you might very well have lived here?" Fortunately, they didn't seem too concerned by that thought. I say fortunately, because they have adapted well to living in our family (Tony, after all was only 20 months when he came to live with us, and Rand, while 11 when he arrived, has done well with what we have offered him), and they feel such security that they don't need to wonder what "it might have been like."

I, however, having navigated the child protective services systems over the past decade or more, was not quite as unplussed. The museum is not large (three corridors in what was once the main building) and the campus has been converted into other uses (the City of Owatonna and others use many of the buildings formerly occupied by the State School), but there is yet an unsettled sense about the campus.

I am, admittedly, a strongly intuitive person, so my experience yesterday was a deeply unsettling one for me. The displays are factual and well balanced with detail. Both positive and negative are dutifully recorded in the historic documentation, but it's not the documentation that creates angst within my soul.

It is the sense of years and years of unsettled life and crushed emotional capacity that haunt me as I consider my hour on the campus. In the picture to the left is a memorial only recently dedicated in honor and memory of the thousands of children who passed through the doors of the campus over the years. Many of the children entered the Orphanage as part of a sibling group, and many were separated from their siblings, even while living on the same campus. The intention was not necessarily to institutionalize the children, but many of the children stayed there for their complete childhood.



Perhaps most troubling to me, however, is the orphan's cemetery, located in the southwest corner of the campus. Here lie nearly 200 children, average age of four, whose families were unable or unwilling to claim their lifeless bodies through the years. Early on the state erected a small marble stone to mark the site of each child's interment, but within a short period of time there were only concrete, numbered markers for the others. How horrifying that these children, who were unable to experience early love and nurture in their young lives, were not even accorded the dignity of a name upon their death. Blessedly, several have stepped forward in the past few years to provide a simple, dignified cross with name and birth and death dates for those who lie in this secluded corner of the campus. As we walked through the cemetery my 11-year-old son said, "Dad, if it looks like I'm crying, it's just because I have something in my eye." I looked at him through tears of my own and simply said, "I understand."

And so I reflect upon how different the picture in 2006 is than it would have been in 1936. In 2006 an adoptive parent with two sons walks through a campus, thinking of the more than 10,000 "wards of the state" who called this "home." In 1936 the grounds were filled with nearly 500 children, a very few who would have been adopted, a fair number of whom would have been "placed out" in one arrangement or another, and a large number who would know no other mother than the "matron" of his or her cottage, no other father than the administrators of the school, no other home than the institutional walls, bedding and clothing that comprised life in the State School. In 2006 my children and I can be visitors, walking back to our own car when we finish and drive home to a comfortable house with people who love one another, to a relatively "ordinary" life.

Like 1936, however, there are thousands of children who continue to linger in foster care, an institutional placement of yet another kind. While in seventy years we as a society have progressed in our thinking about children's issues, we have still not come far enough. When 120,000 a year call the impermanency of foster care "home," we have not done enough.

Monday, October 16, 2006

It's Not the Behavior We Love

Life with our seventeen-year-old son diagnosed with FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) is always a bit perplexing. I should have known from the beginning that our lives would be forever different with his presence in our family. The early signs should have alerted me: the scattered thoughts (attributed by professionals at that time to ADD or ADHD), the impulsivity, the lack of trust and attachment, the destructiveness, the lack of a sense of cause-and-effect and consequence. In those early years I attributed his dysfunctioning to early years of trauma and neglect, and I believed ardently that in time his behaviors would change, that he would feel comfortable in our family eventually, and that our consistent, patient, disciplined work of parenting would have some effect.

That was nearly nine years ago. And Mike's behaviors have not changed. He is still impulsive, distractable, scattered, lacking in trust and attachment and lacking a sense of cause-and-effect and consequence. Along the way I have had to decide whether to love the child or to love his behavior. This has been a most difficult task, because we parents have been socialized to believe that "good parents" create "good kids." When kids do not behave in socially appropriate ways or when they choose paths their parents have not traveled nor desire for them to travel, the tendency is for us to ask: "Where are the parents?"

And, to be sure, there are many situations in which ineffective or non-functioning parents bear the the blame of their offspring's miscreant ways. It's not only birth parents who can be held so responsible; there are plenty of adoptive parents who are ineffective, too, so my words are not a blanket indictment against birth parents.

But there are a couple of things I have learned and continue to learn in my experience with a child who has FASD. I have learned, first of all, that no amount of consequence-based, love and logic, tough love parenting will alter Mike's behavior. He suffers an organic brain damage that disallows him from understanding that modus operandi. In the same way that I would not blame a child born without sight for her inability to read a written text, I cannot blame my son for the damage that occurred while he was being formed in his birthmother's womb, a supposed place of safety and security.

I have learned, secondly, that regardless of his disability, I cannot make Mike's choices for him. I can encourage him, I can point out what the right choice is and why, I can do my best to protect him from himself, but ultimately the choices he makes are his choices. When he was nine years old and found a way to poison his elementary school's air conditioning system with pepper spray he obtained at local convenience store (I have never figured out why a convenience store would sell pepper spray to a nine-year-old, but that's another topic), I felt responsible. When he destroyed any mechanical item he could his hands on until he was twelve years old, I believed I should have been able to keep him away from others' valuables. When he stole my class ring, my great-grandfather's ring and assorted cash over the years from our locked bedroom, I accepted the losses as part of the stakes of parenting a high-risk child. When he began to disappear for days at a time when he was fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, I believed we needed to intervene. Hence the numerous trips to the county sheriff's office, the uncounted trips to the juvenile delinquency center, the hapless machinations of attempting to work with county social services to obtain help for him.

But Mike is now nearly eighteen. In five months he will be, in the eyes of the society, an "adult." The choices he makes and the consequences he receives will be solely his. He will certainly blame us, as he does now. In his mind iIt has always been our fault that he steals (we don't give him enough money), that he runs (we don't give a damn about him), that he spends his time with a group of people not in his best interest (we are prejudiced against his friends). I have learned after nine years that there is only so much blame any one or two parents can rightfully assume, even in the best of situations.

And finally, I continue to learn that it's not Mike's behavior I love. It is Mike I love. He can choose for himself (however inadequate his capability to do so) what he wants to do. He can decide to ridicule us, blame us, reject us, poison his siblings with words of derision about us, and ultimately leave us.

But there is one thing he cannot do. He cannot make me not love him or care about him. The years ahead will be even more difficult than the years past as he attempts to establish some independence in his life. The challenge will be enhanced because he has little attachment or connection to us emotionally. His dubious choices will likely get him into further legal trouble. His behaviors will catch up to him in ways that will always surprise him. He will be angry and destructive. And he will blame us.

But it's not his behavior we love. It is Mike we love.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Myth of Security

I confess that one of the hardest parts of my journey as an adoptive parent is the lack of security involved in it all. Perhaps it's only an illusion, but I think parents who have the opportunity to raise a child from birth may feel more secure in their role. In a normal, relatively healthy family a sense of attachment develops between baby and parents that is so normal and undistinguished it remains unrecognized. In birth families there is a general sense of awareness regarding the child's life ... one or both parents remembers the day of the chid's birth, the child's first footsteps, the acquisition of language. In birth families the child and parents grow together in a relatively seamless fashion as day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute the relationship naturally grows, develops and emerges. This means that by the time of adolescence -- while adolescence is a painful transition for all children and those who love them -- a parent has some sense of security in enduring or encouraging the necessary steps a child takes toward self-differentiation and independence.

Certainly, even in the healthiest of birth families, there is no ultimate security. Bad things happen even in the best of situations. The child may contract a dread disease which becomes fatal and a parent recognizes the fragility of life. Or a child raised by even the most moral, committed parents can choose to throw away his or her future with the cliche parental "dreads" -- chemical use and dependency, a too-early pregnancy, or petty criminal activity. So, I understand, of course, that no family is guaranteed security when it comes to their children.

The challenge for me, though, is that even the most rudimentary expectations concerning security may not exist for adoptive parents, especially adoptive parents of older children. We do not have the power that memories of the "first days" hold ... we do not have pictures of the first step, we do not remember the first words, we cannot hold on to a strong history of healthy attachment. We do not have the benefit of a clear picture of emotional, physical or mental health histories and how these might inform the nature of our child. In the midst of the adolescent and young adult crises common to all children and parents, adoptive parents do not have the luxury of reflecting upon better days -- often there are few or no "better days" to which to go.

It creates a real sense of insecurity and anxiety to never really know how much, if any, difference your work as a parent has made in your child's life. And while I suppose that is a concern common to all parents, I think it is more acutely felt in the life of the adoptive parent.

The truth of the matter is that life is fleeting and that security is tenuous for any of us, whether parent or no parent, whether adoptive parent or birth parent, whether child or senior citizen. Ultimately, we do not have the final say, and we learn to trust in Someone beyond ourselves if we are to survive.

I am struck by the power of these words by Helen Keller (whose history of mal-attachment deserves a serious look by any adoptive parent):

Security is mostly superstitious.
It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either daring adventure, or nothing.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Oh, Yeah, That's Right ...

I have, admittedly, a very full life, which for an introvert is something of a conundrum. We who value our interiority and find solace in moments of personless peacefulness often become resentful when life is too full. My life over the past few months in moving to a new church assignment, initiating change and managing the discontinuity within my life, my family's life and the congregation's life can be overwhelming. The challenges of adoptive parenting, in addition, present a unique slant on my modes of existence.

And tonight I am tired. I have been tired all day. It was after 2:00 AM this morning that I was finally able to sleep, and I was up again by 6:10 AM to start my day with the kids before school. Wednesday's are killer days for me with church activities and teaching three separate confirmation classes from 6:30 - 9:00 PM. Tonight's seventh and eighth grade classes were more unruly than usual, with incessant chatter and socializing that threatened to get the best of me. I persevered through the seventh graders, but the eighth graders were able to leave twenty minutes early because I had exhausted my efforts, and I wanted them to be able to leave church with a relatively positive feeling. Tonight's ninth graders (the final confirmation class of the evening) were surprisingly cooperative, although predictably chatty, but we were able to accomplsih what I set ot to do, and they were done about five minutes early.

They rushed off into the autumn air while I stayed behind the check that all the lights are out and that the windows are shut. Walking through the darkened corners of the hallways leading to my office, I asked myself, "What's this all about? Does this really even matter that much?" And I was making the mental conclusion that there's good reason why many pastors endure confirmands for one year or less, attempt to entertain them and then move on.

In my mental reverie I did not immediately notice the ninth grader cavorting up the stairs leading to my office. The student caught my attention, "Hey can I say something to you?" Momentarily taken aback (after all, the ninth graders had been saying stuff for most of the past hour in my presence, both to me and to others), I responded, "Sure." "I've got something I really, really need to talk about, and I haven't told anyone else." "OK," I said, not needing to encourage further words. "I just found out today that my friend has been using drugs, and I've just got to get it off my chest." I aksed the individual what the friend was planning to do about his situation. "I think he wants to quit, go into rehab or something." "That takes a lot of courage and support," I offered. "Yeah." "And so," I said, "what are you going to do about it?" "What do you mean?"

"What I mean is this: how are you going to be able to help your friend?"

"Well, I'll stick with him and be supportive and stuff."

"And you're strong enough not to do what he's doing?"

"Yeah. I've been offered a lot of times before, and it's dumb. I'm not going to do it."

"Well, he's going to need some good friends in his life if he is going to change."

"Yeah."

I told my heart-broken confirmand (whom I've known now less than a month), "I'll pray for him and for you, that together you'll be able to get beyond this."

"Thanks."

As he bounded out the shadowed church doors to rejoin friends, I remembered why it is that I do this, why I have committed years of my life to serving others in God's name and, in particular, why I have devoted so much of my time and attention to youth over the years.

"Oh, yeah, that's right," I say to myself at this end of this long day. "That's why I do this."

Nature or Nurture?

It is a hot October night in Minnesota. Yes, you read that correctly. It is not typically hot in October in Minnesota, but today it was nearly 90 degrees and as the sun faded into the horizon and as the clouds billowed above cooler temperatures have been invading, but not rapidly enough. My kids tonight all complained about how hot it is, and how they can't sleep and how they can't wait for winter (mark those words for a few weeks from now). It is too hot, and my mind is too alert for me to sleep. My wife often chides me for being able to sleep no matter what and often says as I am drifting off to sleep, "Good night, I love you. hope you sleep well, why I lie here awake." Tonight Claudia is out of town, but I am as insomniacal as she, so I write.

It has been a very strange day in our family. Everything seems akilter. The weather is odd. Our kids seem disoriented from the warmth and the change in routine (when mom is not home things do not go the same way they do as when she is home. You can guess who is the enforcer and who is not). I had a challenging IM "conversation," interspersed with three intense cell phone conversations, with our third-year college son. It all began with his terse IM to me:

Terroryzer: dad facebook is for college kids
BAFletcher: pardon?
Terroryzer: why do u have facebook
BAFletcher: I do not have facebook.
Terroryzer: oh
Terroryzer: well there is somebody with you name adding people
BAFletcher: why do you think i have facebook?
Terroryzer: its pretty funny
BAFletcher: what do you mean?
Terroryzer: somebody has a picture of you and is adding friends on facebook
BAFletcher: and facebook is not only for college students. i know adults who have it.
BAFletcher: And who do you suppose that might be?
Terroryzer: i have no idea

This was the conversation at about 5:00 PM our time. I didn't think too much of it, but curiosity got the best of me, so I hopped on my web browser and discovered that non-students are now able to be on Facebook (at its origin, I believe, it was simply for college students, but the scope has since broadened). I signed myself up for a legitimate Facebook page and looked "myself" up. It was, indeed, a picture of me along with details about our family and my vocation that were too detailed to make me very comfortable.

So a little later I IM'd our son to let him know that I now have a Facebook page and that I wanted to be his "friend." I knew, frankly, that such a request would send him reeling because we have believed for sometime that the persona he wishes us to know and the persona he wishes others to know are two very different identities. While I won't go into all the gory details, we agreed with Kyle three years ago that we would help him finance his education at a private college if it met our criteria, which were fairly specific with regard to spirituality and Christian lifestyle. And I should add, in our own defense, that the University Kyle attends is not in any sense fundamentalist or unwieldlingly conservative. But I digress.

As predicted, my request to become his "friend" created an emotional frenzy I have not been partner to with him in some time. He insisted that there was nothing on his Facebook page that would cause us to trust him less and that for us to question his trustworthiness was tantamount to permanent parental rejection. Or, rather, I think it went something like this, after I indicated that since he already has 248 "friends" who are able to see his profile on a regular basis, I would be unable to send a $1500 tuition payment if he was unable to "befriend" me on Facebook:

Terroryzer: and you will be breaking a contract and lossing a son
BAFletcher: if you have nothing to worry about you have nothing to worry about.
Terroryzer: your choice
BAFletcher: No, Kyle, you will make the choice.
Terroryzer: and I am 100% serious right npow
BAFletcher: You are overreacting to this.
BAFletcher: there must be some very embarrassing stuff on there if it's that big of a deal to you.
Terroryzer: no theres really not
Terroryzer: its just you invade to much of my privacy
BAFletcher: then why would you lose $1475 and your father over it?
Terroryzer: i get no privacy with you
Terroryzer: i would lose you as a dad
Terroryzer: because you give me no privacy
BAFletcher: you said we would lose a son.
Terroryzer: i am intitled to some
BAFletcher: Idon'twantto lose a son.
Terroryzer: thats what I mean
BAFletcher: Privacy is in the midst of 5 or 5 people. Not 248

And so we continued our delightful dialogue for a number of minutes. I won't bore you with needless details, but I wanted Kyle to understand the nature of trust, how it is formed, developed and supported in relationships. The fact is, I'm not that interested in Kyle's Facebook page. I am, however, interested in his response to my request to be his "friend."

BAFletcher: I don't want to be messed with ... I want honesty.
Terroryzer: i want to be trusted
Terroryzer: guess we both have wants
BAFletcher: I've been trusting you a long time ... and now you are making me believe I might have been wrong.
Terroryzer: no u dont
Terroryzer: u say that but u really dont
BAFletcher: So you shouldb e able to trust me enough to invite me to be your friend.
Terroryzer: u go behind my back and use your sources to see if what I say is true
Terroryzer: u really dont believe me straight up
BAFletcher: You're the one that IM'd me about this.
BAFletcher: I didn't initiate this. Your friend [B] did. Talk to him about misusuing trust.

The conversation continued -- Lord, did it continue -- but the conclusion is that I am now a friend of Kyle's on Facebook. And I probably won't even bother to look at his profile and wall all that much, but I want him to have some sense of accountability, to know that even at nineteen years of age his parents are concerned with his continuing moral development and that what he purports to be true on Facebook needs to be the same story he tells us. He is caught in that time of identity development where he is not sure who he is and is doing his best to play at least two fields, so I struggle with that. I would rather, I think, that he be one or the other -- positive or negative -- and be honest with me about it than to lead me to believe something that may or may not be true.

And, as usual, his mother has pegged the issue quite well. Her contention, and I agree, is that this really is a spiritual issue. He is trying to figure out how to integrate in his life what his parents (who have only been his parents from the age of 11 to the present, a mere eight years) have sought to build into his life and what those around him are inviting him to believe. It is a decision that he will need to make for himself, but his parents will continue to press him.

Which brings me to the point of this blog, albeit in a circuitous fashion. Today I attended a very interesting lecture at Gustavus Adolphus College's annual Nobel Conference. Today's speaker, J. Michael Bishop, 1989 Nobel laureate in physiology/medicine, gave a remarkably relevant lecture on the human genome project. While much of the biological depth is lost on me (I'm much more of a Humanities-oriented individual myself), what he had to say about nurture versus nature captivated me.

He predicts that one of the outcomes of the human genome project (in which every genetic code will eventually be mapped and identified) is that we will finally have an answer to the age-old nature versus nurture theory. He was unwilling to say what the outcome might be, but he was clear that genetic research leads him to believe that the reason any of us do what we do is not related simply to genes, nor is it primarily attributable to environment. It is, rather, a deeply complicated, complex weave (my words, not his) of both that result in how we become in our lives. The hope for me in his comments is this. In the past few years I have migrated rather dramatically in my own mind to the "nature" side of the equation. After years and years of careful, intentional, deliberate and committed work with my children, the frustration level reached the point for me that I figuratively raised my hands in exasperation and said, "It's genetic, and there's very little I can do about it." While I have continued to love my children, I began to slip into a helpless mode of beieving very little of what I've tried to do has mattered, especially in the lives of my older children (who have been with us the least time).

Bishop's talk today, helps me to believe that there is yet power in environment. Genes hold strong sway in all of our lives, but environment makes more a difference than we may ever fully understand. If I understood him correctly, Bishop also put forth the idea that genetic impulses and interactions are not static (that is, unchanging) but that they are dynamic (changes occur within the genes and further influence other systems in the body). This is hopeful to me, and it renews my desire to believe that genes may not hold all the answers to the eventual outcomes of my children's lives.

So, Kyle, although you will likely never read this -- but hey, maybe I could post it or its web address on your facewall now? -- be assured of at least this one thing. Until the day I die -- and maybe not even after that -- I will do all I can to be a father that influences, urges and reminds you that you are a much better person than you may want others to think you are. And while you will make the choices you feel you need to make in your life, your father will never abandon you -- even when you threaten, cajole and insist on it.

Nature or nurture -- birth parents or adoptive -- your years at home with us or your relative independence today and in the future -- yes, my son. All of the above.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Not Always Mine ...

As I type these words I am sitting at a picnic table in Minneopa State Park. It is a tranquil autumn day, and it is only I and our household pet, Gizmo occupying space on this precious, fleetingly marvelous October morning. The hardwood trees, and they are mostly hardwoods in this part of the world, are festooning the glories of creation with hues subued – languishing yellows, diminishing oranges, autumnal browns – and with hues majestic – piercing reds and tantalizing scarlets. Here we sit beneath the luxuriant umbrella of cream-streaked blueness called sky and, as Iisten, I hear the periodic pattering of leaves dropping from their long-past-summer haunts. As I reach to take a drink from my orange Nalgene water bottle, I see two ladybugs, their appearance in Minnesota’s early October morning as much as a surprise to me as their near-match with the color of the bottle.

Today I am grateful for the flexibility my schedule allows. To be sure there are many ways in which my life as a pastor are clinched by the expectations of others – the need, for example, to be present and prepared for a funeral or a wedding – and the responsibilities of the vocation – nearly every Sunday I know exactly where I will be for the entire morning and sometimes the early afternoon. There are moments when the regimentation of my vocational life frustrates me and boxes me in, but on days like this, when I can bring my “work” with me and glory in the gifts of creation, I feel blessed. My “work” today is both specific and non-specific. It is specific in that I have working on worship plans to take our community of faith through November. It always feels like an accomplishment to have selected the texts from which I will preach, the hymns which we will sing, and at least a tentative sense of flow for months ahead. In a non-specific way it is an opportunity for me to escape the tyrrany of the telephone, the cell phone, email and instant messenger. In the minutes that flow by I have the luxury of feeling less anxiety and tension surrounding my vocational life.

And it’s not just my vocational world that finds healing in these moments of stepping into the homeopathic merits of nature. I reflect upon my life as a parent, and my work as an adoptive parent. You notice that I separate the two, at least at this moment, because it is sometimes easier for me to relish my parental role if I can identify the commonalities all parents face. All parents, whether adoptive or not, deal with the challenges that the adolescence of their child/ren brings ... peer pressure, increasing independence, defiance, a growing sense of self-awareness, questions about life’s meaning, purpose and direction. And really, while those parts of parenting have their own unique stresses, it is a common “dilemma” (if you will) of all parents, anywhere, at any time. It is not “work” in the same that the adjectival layer “adoptive” can create.

Perhaps I am unusual in this regard, but my role as “adoptive” parent is work for me. The mental reminder that my children do not share my genetic heritage (for which I am, ambiguously and alternately, paradoxically, grateful and resentful) adds a layer of questioning I might not otherwise exhibit. So, when our seventeen-year-old son leaves on a Friday night and doesn’t show up until early Sunday morning (with no indication during that time where he has been), I have to wonder whether it’s a simple parenting dilemma, complicated by his FASD diagnosis, or whether it is more than that. Or when our twelve-year-old daughter, who is Hispanic by birth and African-American by fascination, reports that her junior high dance was “too white and too childish with kids’ music,” I wonder about the complexities of my possible responses. I could defend the need for a school to provide appropriate music, or I could remind her that in the community in which we live her high school is one of the most diverse for miles around. Or I can simply say and mean it, “You’re right. The DJ in your school last year is about the best there is around.” When helping others to understand our ten-year-old’s profane outbursts is it enough to be informative (“We want you to understand that one of his issues is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and sometimes it’s hard for him to stop saying what he knows he shouldn’t”) or does it need to be augmented (“We have reason to believe that he may have some brain dysfunction as related to what we think to be his birth mother’s chemical use and his birth father’s developmental delays”). To be an adoptive parent is work. To be honest, authentic and yet ethical and respctful regarding our children’s birth origins involves a series of tough calls.

I do my best to rely upon the side (if there is a “side” in such discourse) that respects birth heritage and birth parents (honestly without diminishment or disparagement) and honors years to which I was neither partner nor witness. If I love my children, who happen to be adopted, I need to find a way to love those who brought him or her into this world. I need not love their dysfunctional lifestyles, nor their abusive or neglectful patterns, nor their disregard or resentment that “someone else” is raising “their” child/ren. But I can learn to love them and respect them for who they are ... the biological progenitors of those whom I call “sons” and “daughters.”

As my children grow older day by day I realize the significance of my attitude toward their “first” parents. Whether I articulate those feelings or not, my deepest perceptions are bound to appear ... it might be in my approach to discipline, to my own unrecognized racial or socioeconomic biases, to my hope or lack thereof in regard to their own futures.

It’s kind of like the trees that surround me on this warm fall day as they vividly display for me the passing of time. What I see with my eyes today are the trunks, the branches, the leaves. The leaves, especially, remind me of transition as they fall to the ground where they will become mulch to nourish the earth. In a few weeks the trees will be bare and weather the winds, snows and cold temperatures of an upper midwestern winter. But beneath what I can see there are roots. The roots hold the structure of the tree in place, they provide nutrition and stability. Without roots these trees will have no green leaves to spring forth in April. But with roots there is promise of a future.

It’s like that with my children, too. What I experience with my senses most frequently are the words I hear from them, the ways they interpret life, the successes and failures they acquire as they grow and develop. There are moments when I see the full, healthy glow of success in their lives, and moments when I painfully witness the “shedding” of a previous way. And beneath it all are their roots – those which are genetic and those which have been grafted in by adoptive parents. It is not a single root system – it is neither “birth” nor “adoptive” roots – but a complex, intricate combination of both, by now so woven together with life experience and forgotten moments that they can never be separated. Nor should they be.

In moments like these I am reminded to thank the Creator, for I love these complex, multilayered, resilient children, who have not aways been mine, but who have always been God’s.