Tuesday, November 30, 2010

To Dream Again

I have been thinking about the Advent/Christmas season since July. I'm not exactly sure why, since our family's stress around the holiday season skyrockets. With the cultural demands (you can read that "materialism" if you wish) and all the changes in routine and the snowy weather patterns in this part of the world and focused church rituals and experiences ... all that, combined with the stresses that many children with special needs feel ... well, it creates more heat than a steaming bowl of wassail, often without the interior warmth a holiday drink might provide.

But, I've been thinking about this season since the steamy days of summer when I made some worship planning choices as to what I would be preaching. As I prayerfully considered what that might look like, lo those long months ago, I was continually drawn to Matthew's gospel, the first two chapters. Especially I was struck by the five dream encounters that together weave the account of the Nativity and early years of Jesus. As the series has developed in my mind, I finally settled on a theme: "To Dream Again."

Unfortunately, due to illness I was unable to preach the first sermon in the series this past Sunday. I am seldom ill enough on a Sunday not to lead worship and preach, and when it is at the start of a series I have been so looking forward to it is a disappointment. I am fortunate to have a very gifted spouse who can hear me groan in the early morning hours on a Sunday, "I think you're going to have to preach for me this morning," and have her respond in a supportive fashion. I am grateful for that gift!

So this morning, as I'm sitting at my home desk before readying myself to come back into the office for the first time in days, I hear a knock at the door as our new grandson Isaac's mother asks me, "Is it OK if he stays in here with you for a few minutes?" I readily offer my assent and she lays his beautiful little six-week self on my bed, handing me his nearly finished bottle of formula.

He is joy in a small human bundle. Thick pitch-black hair frames his healthy pink forehead, his eyes sparkling depths of energy, his rosy cheeks a picture of baby health. Within seconds of his arrival I am hovering over him, kissing his warm, tender cheek and lifting him into my arms. As I cradle his young body in my left arm I nestle him into the crook, steadying his bobbing head, stroking his clean, shiny hair. His glance catches mine, and I whisper grandfatherly sweet nothings into his ears, offering him the remainder of his bottle.

Although I am the father of twelve children, I have never had the delight of nurturing such a tiny little life. Our youngest child arrived at the age of nine months, well past the fragile temerity of infancy. Coupled with their older ages and multiple caretakers early in life, even our youngest children have not always been easy to hold or to cuddle. They learned early, far too early, to push themselves away from their caretakers, responding to inconsistent care or to neglect. While I have loved all of my children, there have been too many moments when I, too, have experienced the painful rejection of their attachment issues.

But this baby is different. This baby was born to cuddle and nestle, to be loved and to love, to know from the very start of life security and contentment. His parents, though young, are attentive and kind and loving to their son. They do not allow their own disagreements or conflicts to disrupt their relationship with young Isaac. They talk to him quietly, they lovingly feed and clothe him, they generously offer him time to know his grandparents.

And so, as I revel in these thoughts, I set the bottle on my desk and rearrange his placement from the crook of my arm to that place seemingly made just for the face of babies, just beneath the caregiver's cheek and chin. I feel the warmth of his little body on my upper chest as his face looks just beyond my shoulders. He is close enough to my ear that I can hear the rapid inhale-exhale rhythm of his snuffling nose and mouth. I pat his back, just a little harder now, to facilitate his post-formula burp, as I feel the warmth of his swaddled body next to mine. In those brief moments his tiny little arms reach around my giant neck as he squeezes tight.

My heart catches, my eyes begin to mist, as my thoughts are drawn back to the season of the year and to the sermon series I will preach. Like shooting stars in the darkness of my imagination I see rapid-fire glimpses of the biblical narrative. I see Abraham and Sarah as they welcome their own baby Isaac into their aged world. I ponder momentarily the torturous act of faith Abraham embarks upon when an older Isaac is placed upon an altar of sacrifice, to be rescued at the last minute by a providential Creator. I remember that "Isaac" means "laughter." And I smile to myself. God allowed this childless, elderly couple to dream again.

In the soul-lifting warmth of that moment I find myself reflecting. The past few years have been very difficult for many of our children (and correspondingly, very difficult for us as parents). The challenges have seemed overwhelming at times, and dreaming has been only a luxury; simple survival has been reality. More times than I want to admit I have resentfully grumbled, "It has made no difference at all to adopt these children. The results would have been the same had I never known them." I began the journey of adoption with optimism and idealism. There was a time when I was hopeful and had moments of joy. But lately not so much.

If I am honest with myself I know why I chose the Advent/Christmas theme I did. I am out of hope, and I have been for some time. To have no hope is a dusty, desert experience of waiting, at first longingly and then languidly, for some sign of life. No longer expecting a drenching downpour of spiritually reviving rain, one without hope wonders whether even a drop will touch the tongue before the ravages of life's burning environment will sizzle it away.

But there's something about a fresh, dewy-eyed new life that invades the corridors of a tired old man's emptiness. With baby Isaac molded to my upper chest I whisper, "Beautiful baby, you are hope for the next generation." I kiss his glistening, baby-scented hair. I hear his life-filled puffs of breath. I feel his contented warmth. I delight in this dance of attachment between grandfather and grandson.

And I begin to dream. Again.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

A Fool

I'm a fool. Really, I am. I am a big picture, visionary thinker. I see possibilities in every situation (except, often, my own, but that's a different blog post). I am drawn to people with troubles. I have a kind and compassionate heart by nature. Most days I am pretty happy with those traits. But at other times I feel more like a fool than a hero.

Today, for example. Our 21-year-old son who has been living with us since March (after his last stint in jail) was in court again today. He was in court yesterday, too, but that was for a different set of charges, I discovered. His day, for all outward appearances, is fairly carefree. The basic expectation we have for him is that he will stay of out of legal trouble. You can see how that's been going.

My day, on the other hand, started early and will end late. Claudia left town this morning on the shuttle for a flight to Indianapolis, where she will be speaking over the weekend. After dropping her off, I returned home to take three of our kids to ride one of thirteen charter buses transporting students to the state soccer championship. I returned home to make sure three other of our kids were getting ready for their ride to school some twenty minutes later. Took that group of kids to school and then drove directly to the church office, where I worked on administrative details until a 9:00 AM meeting with clergy colleagues.

In the midst of the busyness I hear from our 21-year-old son who asks me for a ride home from his early morning court hearing. I agree to transport him, knowing that it will mean missing the first part of my clergy gathering (which is hosted by the congregation where I serve Christ). An hour later I receive a pleading call. Will I bail him out?

Yesterday the judge told him he needed to find a job prior to his thirty-day sentence (to begin in late November) so that he could engage in work release. Today the judge puts him in jail with a $1,000 cash bail or $150 bail bond. So, of course, he is confused and frustrated by the process. He has no money. We haggle for several minutes until I hear his plan to pay me back the $150 before the end of the week. It sounds tenable, so I agree, reluctantly.

But then again, I am a fool. Over and over again I have opened my heart to my errant children, only to have a similar pattern of behavior repeated. I'm never sure, really, who is the fool: the kid or me. Perhaps the answer is both, but for different reasons.

Our clergy gathering begins with conversation, then proceeds with morning prayer (including a hymn sing of sorts) and holy communion. The gospel reading cites the sadducees and pharisees who were so preoccupied with their own self-righteousness that they had little time for compassion, especially for the outcast. I can feel my inner person grinding because of the relevancy. Among the hymns we sing is one that includes these lyrics:

Differently abled, differently labeled widen the circle round Jesus Christ:
Crutches and stigmas, cultures' enigmas all come together round Jesus Christ.

My soul is pushing back. "Yeah, yeah, yeah" I hear my soul say. But deeper still I hear the quiet voice of the One saying, "This is your son. He has disabilities, he is labeled, he is stigmatic, he is enigmatic."

Another song was suggested which included a reference to prisoners, and I knew that I was in a moment of reluctant spiritual awakening. But God is like that sometimes, many times maybe; a relentless sentinel for compassion and selflessness.

While we are singing the hymns I receive a text from my son. "I'm really sorry for having to put you through this ... I know I have been an ass and just been seemingly taking advantage of you and mom. For now I'm gonna shape up and follow house rules and everything. I really need to put my life together. I've just been really down and depressed lately. I apologize."

This is not revelatory. It is reactionary, and it has occurred numerous times before. He gets in trouble, needs money, and suddenly penitence flows forth.

But I'm a fool. Have I mentioned that? I have a tender heart, and I love my kids, even when they use me and speak disrespectfully to me and take advantage of my good nature.

Rationally I know that the text I received are illusory, but emotionally I still believe that there is hope for my son, so I meet him at the jail, take care of the bail bond and take him to lunch, where we have the conversation we have had for years now, but with a twist. I remind him that I have loved him for thirteen years now, but I confront him reality. "Mike, you have a hole in your soul. You are a lonely, angry person who needs to find peace. You will be able to get beyond this, but it's going to take developing your spiritual life."

He looks at me, his translucent green eyes a contrast to the orange hair that covers his head and part of his face. And he says, "Yeah, I know."

The conversation that ensues is not earth-shaking. I continue to hear how Claudia and I have been the cause of his problems. It was our parenting, it was our choices, that have brought him to the place where he is. I choose not to defend myself too much, but I listen to the anger and the pain.

And then, fool that I am, I say, "Mike, you may never trust us or love us. And that's OK. We chose to love you when we adopted you, and I want to offer you the opportunity to blame me and be angry with me as much as you need to be. I will accept your anger and your pain, in hopes that one day, even if it is when I am dead, that you realize how much I love you."

He nods his head, chagrined but not changed. At least not yet.

But then again, I am a fool.

"We are fools for the sake of Christ." The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 4:10.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Election Day 2010

I have always been interested in politics. From elementary school forward I have captivated by the political process, the personalities and the power wielded by those who create legislation. I have been a committed voter, as well, having as my goal every two years to reach the polling place before the doors open so that I can be one of the first to vote.

This morning I arrived in the 6:55 AM darkness to wait with several other hardy souls. It was a brisk Minnesota morning, beautiful for early November, but chilly nonetheless. I counted the others waiting ahead of me to discover that I would be voter number ten. Among the ten of us I was by twenty years the youngest person there (and I am in my mid-40's). Two of the individuals used walkers to arrive from the senior citizen residence across the street, and a third required the assistance of an election judge due to failing eyesight. The others of us were above 40.

My wait was brief (less than 5 minutes for the authorizing process and another 90 seconds to await a voter booth). I glanced over the ballot, having known before entering the polling place how my votes would be cast. Within another 5 minutes I was finished, and as I inserted my ballot into the automatic tally machine I saw that I was voter number nine this year. Two years ago I was in the first fifteen, so I felt pretty good that my goal to "get there early" had been met.

As I filled in the ovals next to the candidates who received my vote, I recognized how differently I vote today compared to twenty years ago. My worldview has changed considerably in the past twenty years, and that largely because of my involvement with children and people whose lives are at the margins of society.

Twenty years ago I had a more naive understanding of life and the world. At that time I had a more profound conviction that there were plenty of safety nets available for those who were down on their luck or for children in poverty or for families needing resources beyond their own making. I must confess that I prefer that worldview, because it was simpler and easier to live with. To focus simply upon taking care of myself (and at that time it was only I as a single person), with the assumption that everyone else, somehow, would do fine as well is a contented way to live.

My life as a pastor and adoptive parents of kids, all of whom come from backgrounds of poverty to be sure (and often neglect or abuse), has turned my head in a different direction. While I am a strong supporter in empowering people to self-sufficiency and the consequent values to self that brings, I have come to recognize that a social safety net must be a presumption if those who live at the margins of life are to find independence and self-determination. Without such a safety net it is only a continual cycle of meaningless attempts to move ahead.

Perhaps what I'm saying is that I have encountered a world that is much more complex than I would ever have thought and that there are no easy answers. In the face of such a situation, I feel compelled to vote in a way that seeks, in the midst of all the messiness of human lives, to provide opportunities for those leas well cared for. Even if that means some perceived "cost" or "loss" on my own part.