Monday, February 25, 2008

It Takes a Village to Support a Parent

Many times I fall back to the African understanding of life, popularized over the past twenty-five years by various ideologues: "It takes a village to raise a child." My experience as a pastor (which precedes my experience as a parent) and my life as a parent both verify the truth of this statement.

I want to expand the statement for a moment, however. I have learned that it also takes a village to support a parent. Being a parent is hard work, the toughest job you will ever love. There is no monetary benefit from this job, few social affirmations and ever fewer accolades from those with whom a parent works most closely, the children. It is selfless, tiring, and life-changing work.

And it can rarely be accomplished alone.

Having been raised in a culture that says to parents (and other kinds of adults): "We take care of our own around here," it is difficult sometimes to realize how important it is to have a support system as a parent. This is especially true, I think, of adoptive parents who often inherit challenges that are bewildering and unexpected.

Yesterday my premise was proven true.

Those who know me best in my vocational life would say, I think, that I am a pretty straightforward, transparent kind of person. I have little to hide and believe that one of the most important strengths I can exemplify as a pastoral leader is honesty and authenticity. Throughout the lives as parents of adoptive children, Claudia and I have chosen to be open, even when it is difficult and embarrassing.

Yesterday I stood before each worship service and explained that one of the culprits in our recent church break-in was our son. I apologized to the congregation, expressed our sense of embarrassment as well as our concern that this activity was one of the most personal ways our son could choose to attack us. It is one thing to break and enter a church and steal property from it; it is another to target the church that your father pastors. I explained that our son has a number of challenges, but the most significant one before him is his Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). I told the congregation I was not excusing his behavior, but simply trying to explain why someone might do what he did. I made it clear that we have never tried to shield any of our children from the choice they make and encourage the decision-makers to prosecute this violation to the fullest extent of the law. I appealed to the group to speak up if they see any pregnant woman drinking, reminding her of the significant cost (in so many ways) such activity exacts upon the child in the womb.

I didn't know what might happen. In some congregations this could be the catalyst to remove the pastor or to cast blame or to express disappointment or frustration. Everything I have come to know about this church has led me to believe we would receive a gracious, Christ-like response, but one never knows. Churches are interesting places.

How touched I was, then, to receive numerous words of consolation, encouragement and assurance of prayerful support. There were hugs of support, reminders that we as parents are not being blamed, and compassion expressed for our confused, brain-challenged son. One gentleman, relatively new to our church, shared with me on his way out the door that he has some understanding of the challenges Mike faces because he himself has been sober for twenty-some years now. Another individual said, "This doesn't make us think less of you as a pastor; it probably makes us think more highly of you."

It was a very bittersweet morning. No pastor ever wants to put his or her congregation in the situation we find ourselves in, but it has provided the opportunity for these dear brothers and sisters in Christ to offer consolation and kindness to their pastor and his family. To receive the grace of others is far more difficult than to offer grace. I am well-practiced in offering God's grace to other, but so much more inept at receiving it. Yesterday was one of those moments for me to learn fro my people. And what marvelous teachers they are.

I know that not all adoptive parents have found a community of faith in which they have been so graciously and lovingly supported. For that I grieve. But that we have such a place, for that I rejoice. (And if you're in our geographical area, we would love to welcome you to this village which knows how to support a parent).


Sage said...

Bart and Claudia,

I agree with the individual that you quoted as saying "This doesn't make us think less of you as a pastor; it probably makes us think more highly of you." Honesty and humility show that you, too, are human, and not a man above his congregation, but equal with them. I will keep you, Claudia, and Mike in my thoughts and prayers. God bless you. ~marge~

Don said...

Amen. Some of my son's behaviors have been as embarrassing, but it's always been my fellow parishoners and my priest who have reached out and let me know that they are all behind me. It is humbling, and it is glorious.