Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Letter Home From Jail

Our nineteen-year-old son is in jail. He has been there, pretty consistently, for the past four months. Last week he was sentenced in the county in which we live on charges that include (but are not limited to) theft of our vehicle last November. At last count he had seventeen computer entries which constitute more than twenty specific violations from misdemeanors to felonies in the state-wide criminal database. This is review for many of you who have read this blog over the past year, but in December we had to have a restraining order placed against him for his verbal harassment and threatening behaviors. We chose to specify in the order that he could have contact with us via US mail, but not in any other fashion (although while sitting in jail that is about the only option available to him).

I have written to him several times in the past months. A few weeks ago I received a post card reply. Today I received a lengthier letter, which included both words and the artistic depiction of the love between father and son. Both tear at my heart. It is hard to have a kid in jail. There should be consequences for (repeated) antisocial behaviors, there is no doubt in my mind, but I still find it hard to reconcile that the best place for a nineteen-year-old kid with mental health challenges is in the slammer. The only result will be his learning to become a better criminal, learning from older, more sophisticated and meaner criminals. I can only pray that somehow he will be spared that experience, but I am realistic enough to expect differently.

Immediately following his sentencing last week in the county in which we reside he was transported to a neighboring county where he will be facing five felony counts and up to 144 months in prison. Says he: "So I'm not really your read-head kid, I'm gonna have to fess and get ready for prison. I weigh about 165-170 now, so I've gotten bigger. Maybe that will help some. But it doesn't help that I'm only 19 and have red hair." A loving father can only surmise what, exactly, that might mean, although the nagging pain in my stomach tells me intuitively.

What can a father say to his son in jail, facing prison time? I don't know. But I tried. Here is part of what I said:

There is something you are wrong about, though. While you may be nineteen, and while you may be facing prison time, you will always be my red-headed kid. I know that for your own good you need to be strong and act like you are older than nineteen, but no matter how old you are and no matter where you live you will always be my son. I will never let go of you, Mike, and I will never stop loving you and wanting what is best for you. If I were going to give up, I would have done that a long time ago. I will never give up on you and the hope that your better days are ahead.

He tells me that he is experiencing anxiety attacks, that he has had a medical consult that has resulted in medication to help assuage his difficulty. All I can think of are the many times when Mike first came to live with us at the age of eight when he would face his anxieties by curling into a fetal ball and scream at the top of his lungs for fifteen, twenty or more minutes. In those moments of trauma I would often pick up his little body from the floor, hold him close to my chest, amidst his flailing arms and kicking feet, and tell him that he would be OK. I would assure him that I loved him, that he was safe, and that I was using my strength to comfort him. Until he was thirteen this was the pattern, with his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in full-blown agony. Only now he does not have a protective physical presence to assure him he is safe and loved.

And so he continues to write: "I'm really sorry for all the problems I've caused, the things I may have stolen, or ruined. I look back at everything now and realized what a ****-up I've been all my life. And some[times] I wonder what would've happened if I had never gotten adopted. I cry [myself] to sleep now because with nothing to do all I can do is think about my past and realized I have absolutely no childhood."

And so I say to Mike, my son in jail:

There is a second thing you are wrong about, too. You have not been a ****-up all of your life, as you say in your letter. There are many moments you have made me proud as your dad. I was proud of you when you acted in the summer drama while we still lived in B******* and you were just a little kid. I was proud of you when you sang in junior high choir in L******. I was proud of you when you were in football and track (even though all the track events and their different timing confused you a bit). I was proud of you when you played tennis and did as well as your brother Kyle who had been playing a couple of years more than you had. I was proud of you when you completed the [Department of Corrections] program at Togo (a program, I know, which was not an easy one). I was proud of you when I watched your abilities as a swimmer from the first time we met you (remember that night in the hotel in Washington, before we brought you and Kyle home?)

When I think of you these days I don’t think about all the crap that you’ve been a part of in the past few years. Instead I think of your infectious smile, your witty personality, your marvelous artistic abilities. I do think of your startling red hair, your eyes that change to fit the mood you are in, your soft-spoken chuckle when something makes you laugh. I think of you in those ways, because I think that’s the way God sees you, too, Mike.

I'm not sure what he means by the ambiguous line about his being adopted. So I say,

You say you wonder what might have happened if you had never been adopted. I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I hope you are not saying that your being adopted is what has created the difficulties you find in your life. Even if that is what you mean, I guess we will never know because the fact is that you were adopted at the age of eight. I can only say that I am glad we adopted you and that you are part of our family. The only regret I have is that, hard as we tried, we were not able to help deter you from some of the situations you have become involved with in the past few years. I regret that, not that we adopted you.

And so he closes a letter home from jail. His words bring tears to my eyes as I think of what might have been and what could yet be. "Well, Dad, I miss you and love you."

Me, too, Mike. Me, too.

Stepping Back Into the Real World: An Inclusive Wedding

If you've followed my blog the last couple of days you know that I have been part of annual gathering of clergy and lay people numbering between 900 and 1000 people. It is always an enriching experience with multiple worship services and styles, intentional decision-making about ethical responses in our world and opportunities to connect with friends from years past and years to come. The down side is that after several days of such enriching time together there is the transition back into the "real world."

In the real world not everyone I meet shares the same faith experience or values what I value. In the real world I become the "preacher" for a congregation and community, instead of a worshiper experiencing the gifts of others. The real world is full of situations that could make one cynical or discouraged. But last night's transition into the "real world" was a soothing one.

I had forgotten until the trip back home, while I was talking with my spouse on the cell, I was reminded that the daughter of family friends would be married later in the day. She is the daughter of "the other Fletcher's" in our community, who have been our friends for a couple of years now, and acquaintances several years before that. They, too, are adoptive parents of two children, both of whom have been affected before birth by the alcohol use of their birth mother. They have four children by birth, as well, the second oldest of whom was married last night.

Claudia and I had trouble convincing most of our children that they should join us for the wedding. They could think of nothing worse than dressing up on a Friday night, even though it was an opportunity to celebrate with our family friends. So Claudia and I took two of our willing children and attended the wedding.

You might understand that for me, as an ordained minister, weddings are just one more part of my vocational life. Truth be told, I would rather do almost anything else as a pastor than officiate at a wedding. The preparations for the wedding itself include several months of pre-marital counseling, working as requested with the couple to plan the service itself, enduring the rehearsal and then showing up to officiate and announce that they are "husband and wife together." I have found that weddings are very labor-intensive endeavors with a lot of stress and anxiety ... and that's just how I feel. (I can imagine how the couple feels).

I've been a part of all kinds of weddings, from a Star Trek-themed wedding (in which the opening words of the service were in Klingon), to outside weddings in the midst of summertime gnats, mosquitoes, winds and clouds, to winter weddings in the midst of blizzards. These are in addition to the "regular" weddings that are not all the unusual or distinct.

Let me just say it. Weddings don't do much for me, generally speaking.

But last night's wedding was a very touching one for me, because it helped to conclude for me what had been a week full of decision made on behalf of social justice in the world and thoughts about how the church can be an instrument of righteousness and equity. Too often leaving a high-minded denominational meeting like the one I've described the participants put their materials into a notebook, place it on a shelf in their office or study and don't think much about it again. Lots of talk, lots of thought, but not much action on behalf of the vulnerable in the world. That's always a distressing thing to me.

But last night I experienced a refreshing wedding. It was in inclusive wedding that sought the participation and joy of all God's people, not just the most talented, or the most beautiful, or the most socially appropriate or acceptable. To be sure, people of those descriptions were in attendance too, but what touched me so much is that the bride and groom selected others, "less than perfect" by culture's standards, to participate in their service.

The bride's younger brother and sister (whom I describe above) were the ring bearer and flower girl. Having seen each of these kids in "real life" many times in our home and theirs, I wondered how it would all turn out. Sometimes the excitement and anxiety of new situations and large crowds cause special needs kids to respond in ways that are socially difficult. Inappropriate words or sentences, behavior that is attention-getting (whether it was intended to be or not), screams, cries and tantrums are not unusual in those situations.

But both of her younger siblings performed marvelously. They did exactly what their roles required of them, and if I had not known of their challenges, I would thought they were just like any other kids of their age. It was delightful to see how their presence blessed the wedding moment.

The bride and groom also selected a special needs young woman to stand with the bride. It may be the only time in her life that this young woman (she is thirteen, I think) ever stands near a wedding altar. The abuse received at the hands of early caretakers in her life have left her with challenges in her gait, in her speech and in her comprehension. As she and the "typical" young man walked in as part of the wedding party, I was touched by her inclusion.

The two young men handing out the wedding programs are two of the disabled individuals that the bride works with as an attendant. It felt good to see their very public and face-to-face involvement with those attending last night's wedding.

I have officiated at many weddings. I have attended many more. But I have never had the opportunity to observe a wedding service in which so much of God's precious diversity in human life were included in a very public way. It is a delight to know a family who over the years has instilled such values in their young adult daughter and her husband. I probably don't need to tell you that such sensitivity is not that common for most young adults in their 20's.

What a pleasure it was to step back into my "real world" by seeing the justice I had heard spoken of all week lived out by a family who has been living it for years. And it doesn't hurt that the family shares the same last name as ours. That's the kind of association I can live with!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Community Values

It is the night before I leave my quiet hotel room surroundings (although I am not here very long, just a few hours at night to sleep) to return home. By the time I leave tomorrow afternoon I will have spent a very meaningful three days in what we United Methodists call "covenant community." In this community we make promises with one another to support our mutual ministry (of both lay and ordained people). This mutual ministry is not confined to those who already know in churches we are already a part of, but our task as God's people is to share our experience of Christ with the rest of the world. It is always a provocative reminder to me of my vocation as, first of all, Christian and, second of all, ordained minister.

It has been a day of many reminders of the value of such a community of faith.

Our morning began with a memorial worship service, in which we remember those pastoral leaders and spouses who have died during the previous year. When I first began attending Annual Conference more than fifteen years ago, I thought I had no need to be present for this particular worship service. After all, I reasoned, I didn't know any of those who had died (I was new to the system and young enough that death of those I knew seemed another lifetime away), so why would I bother going. After the second or third year, though, I changed my mind. Having experienced the grace and welcome of a Christian community that warmly embraced me (at that time as a perfect stranger to all 1,000 others there), I decided the least I could do would be to remember "their" dead. It didn't take long for me to move into the experience of remembering "our" dead, even if I had not known them personally, their lives lived faithfully and in covenant with others. So I have been attending the memorial service every year for more than a decade, shedding a few tears each year as I recognize that one day it will be mine or Claudia's name called forth during the service. I am hopeful that there will be those present on that day in the future who, while not ever knowing me, will perhaps shed a tear of gratitude with my remaining family members and friends. This is an evidence of a beloved community.

The remainder of our day was spent in plenary sessions dealing with various legislative issues, ranging from the mundanity of the annual budget approval to the complexities of addressing needs of poverty in society and how to act justly on behalf of coffee growers in Central America. As an Annual Conference we have authorized a group whose task it is to pray with and for, and to contribute on a regular basis, toward ministries that work on the front lines with those that society calls "poor." We wrestled with how to name the issue -- poverty -- without demeaning the human people involved. How do we find ways to reach out to those in desperate situations without the paternalism of historic religious efforts to provide care? While we struggle with the semantics, it makes me proud to be part of a Christian movement that cares about those at the margins of society. This is another evidence of beloved community.

Our day ended with the ordination service, always a highlight for me. Those to be ordained (this year one man of Asian heritage and four Anglo women) lead our procession, followed by those of us who are already ordained. Friends, family members and laity are seated in the congregation as nearly 200 ordained process in liturgical dress. It is a rather impressive moment, not because of the pageantry (although there is that), but because of the reminder of how much is done for good in the course of a year's time as the result of committed servant leadership across the state of Minnesota. Tonight I sat next to a colleague who last year retired after 40 years of ordained ministry. When we sang I heard his voice blend with mine and hundreds of others. His hair is now grey, his gait slower, his hearing more muted, but his joyous disposition and Christ-touched heart continue to shine. I look around and amongst the white and black robes festooned with the red stoles (liturgical reminder of ordination) are colleagues in ministry who are older than I and younger, who are males and females, who are Anglo, Hispanic, African-American and Hispanic. There is a sense of mutuality and shared purpose that connects us together, another powerful evidence of beloved community.

I am a blessed person. I have a community who shares my deepest spiritual passions, that reflects my thirst for justice in the world and that reminds me of the glorious diversity of God's creation.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What It's All About

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, I am currently away from home through Friday participating in what United Methodists call "Annual Conference," the yearly gathering where equal numbers of clergy and lay people come together to celebrate our worldwide work, consider what God is asking of us in our region and reconnect with friends and colleagues. After fifteen years of attending it has become a kind of "homecoming" for me as I greet former parishioners, clergy friends from other times in my life and foster new connections.

If you've read my blog entries about my vocational life, you understand that I am quite satisfied with the work God has called me to do. Even on the worst days, when I wonder what else I might do, I can never come up with anything that would provide the depth of meaning that my life as pastor does. I love what I do, even in the most challenging of weeks.

I am reminded while attending this year's Annual Conference that part of the reason I find my vocational life so meaningful is that it supports and empowers my life as an adoptive parent. In reality the two are mutually reinforcing, because my theology as a pastor has been stretched and deepened as an adoptive parent in ways no formal, academic study could equal. (And I've had my share of academic experiences, with a Bachelor's degree from a conservative "evangelical" liberal arts college, a Master's degree from a moderate "evangelical" seminary, and doctoral work from a progressive, "mainline" University School of Theology).

I am one of the fortunate few in the world who has the opportunity to live fully in both the vocational and family realms without feeling like I am betraying one for the other. This is a gift I often contemplate, although I am not nearly grateful enough. Experiencing this week's exceptional worship services, being reminded of my calling as a Christian to love God with all of my heart and my neighbors as myself ... and hearing once again the ways in which we Christians who call ourselves "United Methodist" see our world ... all these moments remind me what it's all about.

United Methodist Christians see life as a two-sided coin. On one side of the coin is a heart filled with the experience of Christ, in which we continue to grow in grace, offering the love of God to those around us in word and action. On the other side of the coin is a passionate, fiery commitment to justice in our world. United Methodist Christians like to talk about "social holiness" (pursuing God's vision for justice in the world) and "personal holiness" (continually getting our personal spiritual lives in order so that we can share the abundance of that faith life with others).

As I listen to the valuable work being accomplished in the world by United Methodist Christians, I am touched to be part of a movement that embraces the world as its parish. And it causes me to ask a couple of questions:

Could I be an adoptive parent without a Christian basis of faith?

Could I be a Christian and not be an adoptive parent?

I would have to say the answer to both questions is "yes," since there are any number of adoptive parents who profess no particular claim to faith. It is true that there are many adoptive parents who are, in fact, Christian. It is equally true that there are adoptive parents who see the "spirituality" of their journey, but may not modify their experience with a "sectarian" descriptor. And there are adoptive parents who profess no life of faith nor of spirituality; they are, by their own description, atheist.

The second question is a little more difficult to answer, based upon my reading of the Scriptures. From the Hebrew Scriptures through the Christian Scriptures people of these faith traditions are enjoined to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. It is not one isolated passage or a few here and there that assert this priority, nor is the call to this kind of justice limited to a particular time period in the history of Judaic or Christian faith. It is, literally, everywhere in the Scriptures Jews and Christians hold sacred. So the very living document that Scripture is for people of my faith tradition breathes this call to justice in the world by caring for the most vulnerable. But not at all Christian people practice care for the alien, the dispossessed or the left behind.

Maybe I'm being too judgmental, but I'm not really sure why that is. Because that's the foundational ethos of Christian faith. It's what it's all about.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Time Passages

As I type these words I am sitting in a hotel room in a central Minnesota city where the regional body of my denomination holds its "Annual Conference" each year at this time. While it is a requirement that I, as an "ordained elder," be in attendance each year, I think I would be here whether required to be or not. I have discovered after nearly fifteen straight years of attendance that the multi-day experience helps me mark time in a way I otherwise miss in the busy-ness of my life.

There are many days, for example, when it seems like I have always been a husband and father of twelve children. I forget that of my forty-four years of life, fully the first 3/4 of those years were spent as a single person. When Claudia and I married twelve years ago, I had no idea the direction our lives would take. Oh, sure, I had some ideas. I knew that we did not want to live an ordinary kind of existence and that we wanted to do some risky things that would live the deepest principles of our Christian faith, but I really had no idea that we would mark our twelfth wedding anniversary with what amounts to one child for each of our married years.

I had no idea twelve years ago when I graduated from Bethel Seminary with my Master's degree that I would be sitting in the same location a little more than a decade letter to celebrate the college graduation (from the college side of that institution) of the person who would become my oldest son. My oldest son was already ten at the time, and I hadn't yet met him.

I had no idea twelve years ago that another of the already-born-but-not-yet-my-sons would be arraigned on felony charges within three days of his older birth brother's college graduation.

I had no idea twelve years ago that I would be awaiting word on my already-born-but-not-yet-my-daughter's most recent court hearing for another violation of her probation.

But, I did know twelve years ago that I would be sitting in a hotel room in this central Minnesota city gathered with 1,000 other United Methodist Christians in worship, decision-making, fellowship and conferencing.

I did know twelve years ago that I would sit through the annual clergy retirement celebration (it's an annual event), but I did not know that I would witness the retirement of the person who nearly fifteen years ago helped me find my way into a new denomination after my hopes and dreams were crushed in the denomination of my youth and young adulthood.

I did not know twelve years ago that I would be the pastor of one our district's most hopeful and growing congregations, but I did know that I wanted to serve God with my whole heart in this new denomination that had opened its heart to me.

I did not know twelve years ago that I would feel the way I feel as a middle-aged husband, father and ordained minister. To experience middle age is to know it, with its sense of missed opportunity and its recalibration of the next twenty years before my own retirement. With the regrets I harbor as a father as well as the joys of seeing the oldest son successfully navigate college years. With the recognition that I am not married to a perfect woman (nor she to a perfect man) but that together we manage to live lives that are changing the world, one child, one parishioner, one person at a time.

As I mark in my own mind these time passages, I am grateful that I have more to live for than simply myself. I am heartened to be called "husband," "father," "pastor," and "beloved child" of God. And while I am not always as content with myself or my life situation as I am tonight, for this moment it is enough.