Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Where Am I, Again?

This has been a day marked by contrasts. I began the day early at Peachtree Tree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, during my second day at the Festival of Homiletics, where I heard more outstanding words from the likes of Barbara Brown Taylor and Thomas Long, both exemplars of the art of preaching. Our sessions were over mid-afternoon, so I returned to my hotel in what seems to be a pretty nice part of Atlanta, near Buckhead. I spent the remainder of the afternoon reading and thinking about what I've been hearing over the past couple of days.

So, with those lofty thoughts in my head, inspired by marvelous homileticians, I set off to find a place to eat dinner. Although this is a continuing education week for me, I do not ask the church to pay for my meal costs, although I suppose technically it would be appropriate for me to charge them back against my continuing education budget. Instead, I simply apply them toward income tax deductions, as our CPA directs. The freeing thing is that I can choose where I want to eat without little thought about the scrutiny of others.

But, anyway, I decided to have a steak tonight, so I set off for the Longhorn, evidently a chain in this part of the country, or at least in Atlanta where there are numerous locations. Upon arriving I was greeted by a young woman who told me the wait would be about ten minutes, so I sat down, extracting my iPhone from my pocket to scan through email and make good use of my time. In the few minutes that ensued I heard the southern drawl of an elderly man as he was leaving, thanking the young woman at the greeter's stand for the "free meal." She responded professionally. Once he was out the door and on his way, though, I heard her disclosing to her co-workers, in an amused, and not-so-quiet voice: "You'll never believe what he said when he came in here." Her co-workers encouraged her to say more, so she continued, "When I told him that the wait was going to be ten minutes, he looked at me and said, 'I don't speak Spanish.'" Together they chortled about the blatant racism, and caught in the act of eavesdropping, I had to glance up to remember the physical features of the young woman. It certainly wasn't a Hispanic accent of any type; her words to me had been good, Georgia sweetness. Sure enough, her tan skin, dark hair and diminutive height could reflect a Latina background, but I chuckled to myself. Having five Hispanic children of "my own" has inured me to the external judgments of the lilly white.

It was minutes later that I was escorted to my table, made my meal selection and awaited the arrival of my entree. As I munched contentedly on my caesar salad and fresh-made loaf of bread, I became aware of a group of four young (well, younger than I am, but that's not that young any more) men immediately behind me. The conversation went something like this:

Waitress: Good evening, what I can I get you to drink? [The men each ordered their favorite alcoholic beverage, after which she requested ID from the youngest of the men. He dickered with her for a few minutes, but finally produced the ID that indicated he was "legal"]. A few minutes later she came back to be barraged with questions about a table of women across the room:

One guy to waitress: Hey, what about those ladies over there ... are they drinking anything?
Waitress: Hmm. I'm not sure. [Looking more closely] ... it doesn't look like it.
Another guy to waitress: Well, they should be.
Waitress: They should be?
First guy again: Yeah, they should be.

As the waitress departed to take the food orders to the kitchen the four drinking buddies continued to share crudities, about life in general, women in particular and wives with too much specificity. With the country music droning in the background and the slurred Southern drawls from the table behind me, I had to ask myself: "Where am I, again?" I was in an upper-class suburb of Atlanta (part of my test to determine economic levels is to look at cars being driven, as well as how many people are out and about walking around ... in this case a lot of nice cars and no one to be seen on the sidewalks for miles), and I felt like I could have been in Redneck Village, USA. Not, mind you, that I have any particular problem with hard-living people.

I've come from a long line of hard-living people, but it's not how I want to live my life. And, as I ruminated on those thoughts, I began to realize that my deeper issue has to do with the sense of displacement I feel within my own family. Consciously I was preoccupied with what was going on around me, but subconsciously I struggle with the paths our older children have taken in their lives. (It's too soon to say what will happen with our younger ones).

Each of our children were adopted from hard-living situations, involving out-of-wedlock births, drugs, alcohol, neglect and/or abuse. And the current direction (with one exception) of all our children over the age of sixteen involves at least one, if not more, of these factors of their origins. It is confusing and disorienting to me. My values, and the values I had hoped to instill within my family, have not changed, but I am challenged to know why I have lived the way I live when I do not see it reflected in the next generation. It makes me feel foolish, unsophisticated and naive.

Where am I, again?

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Blessing from Archbishop Desmond Tutu

After Ricardo's soccer game last night I stayed in a metro area hotel room, anticipating my early flight to Atlanta this morning. I am using a week of continuing education to participate in this year's Festival of Homiletics (a preaching conference). I have been in Atlanta a couple of times before this week, and I have come to enjoy the city. It is richly diverse, nestled in the bosom of the deep south, a fascinating mix of success and disappointment. In the summer residents refer to it as "Hot-lanta," but the forecast for this week actually shows it to be cooler here than back home in Minnesota.

Arriving uneventfully in Atlanta this morning, I picked up a rental car and drove to my hotel. There were, of course, hotels closer to the conference location, but when it comes to hotel rooms I am notoriously cost-conscious. I no longer stay in cut-rate hotel chains (I've traveled enough now that I just can't do that any longer), but with the power of the internet I can usually find myself a good room at a good price. This time I was able to find a great Doubletree Hotel, but it is several miles from the conference site. I figure the $75 a night difference is worth driving five miles or so and justifies the rental car.

Every time I get into a rental car, though, I am reminded anew of what a set up for disaster it is. The traveler is probably a bit disoriented after a crowded flight, followed by (in this case) a packed shuttle to the rental car area. Once there the driver-to-be is summarily disgorged from the shuttle to pick up his or her rental vehicle, most likely a vehicle nothing like the one back home. After stowing luggage, properly organizing the rental contract information, adjusting mirrors, moving the seat and steering wheel, turning on the air conditioning (or heat, as the case may be) and the radio, the driver is ready for the next step in the process: immediate immersion into some of the city's busiest traffic. Balancing the need to drive safely, merge correctly into the flow of traffic, scan directions to one's destination and adjusting to a new car -- all within five minutes -- is a daunting task. I've gotten used to it over the years, but it still makes me feel some trepidation. Fortunately I made it safely to my hotel, checked in and was able to take a short nap before this evening's opening festivities.

Two of my favorite clergy-type people in the world were scheduled for tonight: Barbara Brown Taylor (an episcopal priest who "walked away" from the Church to become a professor) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I have read and followed their lives for a number of years now, so to hear them in person was a real treat.

Taylor spoke eloquently of why it is that the South is so renowned for its particular version of Christian faith. She masterfully tied together the social and spiritual histories of the South in a profound way. Her conclusion, and my summary will sound much more perfunctory than her elegant words, is that the Bible is for "losers," by which she means those who have come through challenging difficult times. Those who have encountered loss find much in the Scriptures to help interpret our world. Her appeal was that people of Christian faith might remember that "suffering is less a problem to be solved than it is a mystery to be endured." In particular, she asked people of faith to consider how we find ourselves in the Scriptures and how that affects our interpretation of what we see there.

The crowning moment of the night, however, was to hear from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His physical appearance is increasingly more frail, but his joyous enthusiasm is fresh and contagious. He spoke of the ways apartheid imprisoned his country (the Republic of South Africa) for so many decades, but joyously recounted the freedom that is now part of their lives. He thanked those in the United States and other western countries for standing in support of the anti-apartheid leaders years ago. He spoke about how far racial relations in the United States have progressed in the past fifty years. Since we are in Atlanta, he made reference to the ways in which this part of the country separated and discriminated against people of color, but how it is that things are different now. I admire his ability to let go of possible resentments and bitterness in order to acknowledge positive change.

The heart of his message was that God has created all of humanity in God's image. His recurring words were, "Be who you are!" To be created and to live in God's image means that to treat any other human in any degrading or discriminatory fashion is "blasphemy. It is to spit in God's face!" His final words, in recognizing the significance of electing our country's first non-white president, were to remind his listeners that Americans have changed our cultural landscape as well. We, like those in South Africa, are seeing changes within the social landscape. With a smile on his face and joy in his voice, his final words to us were, "Aren't you glad you don't have to say you're Canadians anymore?!" While I'm sure not every appreciated his political stance, I hope they recognized what I understood him to say: that the election of an African-American president does more to identify our country as making racial progress than mere words. And those who might have felt disappointment or shame in the past regarding our country's checkered racial history might be able to respond with more pride than before.

In closing the service Archbishop Tutu offered the words of St. Francis of Assisi which begin, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Concluding those familiar words, he offered a blessing in his native tongue. It was quite an inspiring evening, and I am now left with a question I need to answer for myself. If I am created in God's image, who does that make me, and how do I find ways to be authentically who I am?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Triple Crown Day of Parenting

It's been some time since I have blogged. At least two months, in fact. I figure that my cynicism regarding parenting is probably not what those in the blogosphere want to read about, but at the same time I'm sure there are parents out there who feel like I do, so at the very least I can reflect the thoughts of others. As challenging as a cynic is, a lonely cynic is probably even more destructive. So, for what it is, here is an update.

Yesterday started fairly well for me. Friday is my usual day of the week "off," by which I mean I do not come even close to my church office or pastoral responsibilities (unless, of course, there happens to be a funeral or some other difficult to schedule event). I have a sense of freedom on Friday's and seek to enjoy it with all my might. By mid-morning, however, my aspirations had already been shattered by a scream fest involving my wife and our oldest daughter, who was demanding transportation to a distant community so that she could visit her boyfriend. This interaction has a long history filled with many complicating factors, and I will not go down that road. It's just too fraught with complexity, and it is simply what it is. (Please, no moralizing comments from blog readers at this point. We are years beyond that).

Anyway, with wife and oldest daughter on their way out of town, I set out to complete some of my personal day-off tasks. Within an hour or so I received word from my wife that there was news she needed to share. Before I go there, let me just share this irony of life. A week ago I was in a week-long training, in which one of the ice breakers was for each participant to share two pieces of information -- one true and one false -- about one's life.

The two I selected (one true, one false) were: (1) my mother is a logger and (2) I am a grandfather. Little did I know that within a week's time I would discover that both statements would be true, and I'm not talking about the "my mother is a logger." I've known that for more than forty years now.

So, suffused with the knowledge that our sixteen-year-old daughter is growing a new life within herself, I arrived back home to hear from the oldest son we have living with us, "Dad, the sheriff was here today." I said, "Oh?" "Yeah," he responded, "he wanted to know if we knew were Mike [our twenty-year old son who has already been in jail numerous times and served a stint in prison for felony convictions] is. I told him we hadn't seen him for a long time, but the cop asked if he could look through our house to make sure he wasn't here." This son has been diagnosed years ago with an expressive language disorder, so sometimes it's bit frustrating to talk with him, especially in situations involving crisis, because his ability to organize and express his thoughts is quite disjoined. "So," I said with my irritation than necessary, "what was the cop doing here?" "Um, he just said that if we see Mike we need to tell him that if he is seen on [our local high school] their property again he's going to be arrested."

Nice. Sixteen-year-old daughter with child. Twenty-year-old son on the verge of arrest ... again.

In what seemed like minutes later, although it was actually a couple of hours, I received the third piece of news. Claudia received a call from aforementioned daughter who had talked with our eighteen-year-old son's girlfriend. Our eighteen-year-old son recently decided that he would leave the group home he had been living in (a place that covered his room, board and transportation free of charge under a state program) so that he could take up residence with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend and her mother.

And yes, in case you are wondering, we did beg, plead and explain to our son that if he was sexually involved with a girl of that age that he could be charged with statutory rape under Minnesota statute.

And yes, he is currently in a county jail in Minnesota on two charges of criminal sexual conduct. The first charge carries with it a prison sentence of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $30,000. The second charge carries with it a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of up to $20,000. And yes, according to the statute (which I read online, but admittedly only as a lay person, and not as an attorney) consent does not constitute legal permission. Our son is a very serious situation. And, as it has been every time for the past seven years, he has chosen his own way and not ours.

So there it is ... serious situations facing 25% of our children. On days like these I wonder why I signed up to be an adoptive parent. They could have been making these same choices as children who aged out of the foster care system without the supposed advantage of having committed, loving parents.

I am disillusioned and despairing tonight. If only there were an award of some sort for parents with the most bad news in one day. There isn't, of course, but for today I think my cynical muse will just call it the Triple Crown Day of Parenting.