Friday, September 28, 2012

A New Normal

It should come as no surprise, the traditional family is now abnormal.  One husband, one stay-at-home wife, and any number of children is no longer a normal occurrence in American society.  The Council on Contemporary Families shows less than 25% of families today can identify with the traditional sense of family, and this figure doesn't include families where divorce has occurred.  So, why are adoptive families struggling so hard to project normality?

In transracial adoptions there is no hiding it on the outside, and while we cannot help but maintain a physical transparency that our family is in fact different, we cling to an ideal within that we can somehow be the same.  Both parents and children wrestle with this emotional battle wanting to simply fit in, avoid the curious public eye and carry-on worry free.

Even in this new normal of non-traditional, one parent, divorced parents, working parents family... adoption is abnormal.  This is a conclusion parents, children, relatives, and friends need to identify sooner rather than later.  The brave face of normality is a front to the reality of brokenness in our children's birth families, infertility in our own families and seasons of instability as both adults and children attach, mature, grieve and heal.

To some, this is not news, yet to others, this is offensive.  Adoption is not the new pregnant.  That is a cute slogan for a t-shirt, but any couple experiencing infertility will tell you this is not the case.  God may have foreknown the circumstances of an orphan's life, but this doesn't make it any less of a Plan B, C or D either.  To disagree is to somehow condone or even promote God's use of our sinfulness to achieve his righteousness rather than his righteousness in spite of our sinfulness.  In what normal occurrence does a family spend anywhere from $15,000 - $60,000 for their child?  And, even if we're adopting a spitting-image of a child from foster care, in what sense of normal do we need a judge to legitimize a child as ours?

The danger in approaching adoption as normal is in our expectations.  When we desire attachment and belonging to occur like it does with biological children... our families fall apart.  Not instantly, but eventually.  We bunker down, continue to convey as healthy a family as possible outwardly, and crumble inwardly.  This happens because children have lost trust in adults, fail to know what is expected of them in a stable family, and grieve their losses.  This happens because parents have no barometer for a timeline of when their child will make the next step in maturity.  Even in the most well-adjusted child and open-minded parents this potential lingers.  Until abnormality can be embraced, family cannot move forward.

In general, the hard part is your community will let you bunker down and then be appalled when you dissolve the adoption.  Some of the truly outlandish people will impose help on you, but even then, the bunker mentality to try and fix this on your own usually prevails.  Affluence is often a killer to adoption.  No parent wants to confess they spent thousands of dollars to bring a child home they now regret adopting.  No parents wants to admit they are incapable of meeting their child's needs.  These are normal feelings in adoption.  To hold them secretly is poison, and to convey them publicly means judgment.  So, how do we approach this quandry?

Refuse the bunker, and accept a new normal.  Agencies can do their best to prepare families, but this responsibility ultimately lies on the shoulders of the mom and dad.  (I'd like to note here we encounter too many dads who throw their hands up and escape to work rather than fighting for their marriages and children alongside their spouse.)  When the papers are finalized, our work as adoptive parents and children is not over.  In fact, if we did not do some of the things I am about to promote or insist on them being done, our real work is just beginning.

While no parent wants to expose their inability to nurture, protect and cure their child, no child wants to admit they cannot be in a family even if they have every reason to believe they're unwanted.  For as much as parents prepare for adoption, children are often thrust into situations they are even more unprepared for usually because they have no choice in the matter anyhow.  Insist that your child have a voice both in their adoption and in their position in the family.  I do not mean that every child should get to choose whether they are adopted or not, but their opinion should be heard and their ongoing understanding of life in this new normal must be considered.  If your child was not prepared, do as much as you can retroactively.  Give them opportunities for closure, acclimate them to new surroundings and honor their past as it is appropriate.

Realize you cannot do this without support.  There is an underground community of support regardless of where you are, however many times you will have to create it or find it on your own.  Grandparents, friends, neighbors, employers and churches have to be educated.  All of those groups are susceptible to leaving you alone both intentionally and unintentionally.  But, you cannot afford to be alone in this.  Get with other adoptive families, ask them what questions you need to ask.  Ask them what resources you need to bring others on board.  Don't wait until some volunteer at your church is confronting you with your child's behavioral issues to begin educating them, or you will bunker down and give up on meeting with the Body of Christ.

Keep your family marriage-centric.  There are seasons of life when work is overwhelming, schedules are over-committed and finances are limited.  This is true in every family, however it seems to be especially true in our families.  Yet, if your marriage is stale, and the last time the wife dressed up like a cheetah was your honeymoon, something must change.  It doesn't matter if you have to schedule sex at first... make your highest priority in your family the health of your marriage.  Being on the same page in your discipline is vital.  Communication and all the other cliched self-help tactics for your marriage are true.  Husbands, do not put this off!  Children need to see their parents' sacrifice, devotion and love for one another.

I could go on, but these aspects are foundational in our new normal.  As adoptive families, we are not held to the same standard.  It is not enough to be functional by meeting our child's basic needs.  There will be times when the best we can do is function, but our ability to adjust and grow as parents and families is instrumental in our own health.  I feel I have painted a relatively bleak and difficult picture of the abnormality of adoption.  Some of this is intended because the obligations of an adoptive family go above and beyond what is normal for traditional and non-traditonal families.  However, some of this is simply an overflow from my family's experience.

We have fostered and adopted some very hurt children witnessing the depravity of humanity and the resilience of it as well.  And, when people ask if I would do it differently by not adopting a child, I can in all sincerity say, "No." I have had regrets of decisions I made in parenting.  I have wished my children made better choices at times.  But overall, I embrace this new normal, prepare myself and others for what lies ahead, and enjoy the beautiful, occasionally chaotic adventure that has ensued.

Invite others into your journey with you, and enjoy it... this life is anything but normal.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

are we obligated?

At the end of an informational meeting my wife and I were leading, the pastor and I were talking, and he stated, "Orphan care is not so much of a calling as it is a responsibility."  I nodded my head half agreeing because to be quite honest, I wasn't sure.

This is not a Ouija Board for those
who are unaware of the greatness
that is Trivial Pursuit.
When my wife approached me about becoming a foster family my response was an emotionless, "Okay."  I wasn't geeked up about the idea but I wasn't against it either.  You could say I have a very laissez faire approach to life at times.  For example, every time my wife and I have decided to have another biological child, a game of Trivial Pursuit has been involved with the winner determining if and when or final choice on the name.  I believe I have won 2 out of 3.  That being said, she felt called to be a foster parent, and I didn't.  I had read something somewhere in the Bible about caring for orphans and went along for the ride.

It's not that I was disengaged by any means.  I participated in training, welcomed children into our home and loved them with reckless abandon as they hurt and healed in our family.  And while I sensed that this journey had not begun in any kind of heavenly revelation for me, as time went on, the calling (or whatever we want to call it) became clearer.

I suppose I'd rather consider it an obligation along the lines of Luke 17:1-10 than a calling.  We tend to do a lot of scary things as Christians under the guise of being "called" to ministry or a specific job, town, person of the opposite sex, etc.  After all, what do you do with your "calling" when what you're called to is a child that tells you he doesn't want to be your son anymore?  Or worse yet, a child whose behavior and emotional trauma is so substantial that your marriage is falling apart over your inability to parent them?  Are you still "called" then?  I suppose the other side of that coin is that if you're obligated to care for orphans it's much easier to detach emotionally and simply move onto the next child that comes along.

Hector was a good pet, but all dog's
go to let's move on, it's
just a dog for crying out loud!
Suffice to say, not everyone is qualified to be a foster or adoptive parent.  People who love their pets in the kind of awkward sense where they have them enshrined when they pass probably wouldn't make good foster or adoptive parents no matter how much they feel called.  When our pets die, they get flushed, tossed over the back fence or buried in the backyard only to have the next set of pets come dig them up and chew on their bones (yes, that actually happened).  People who carry around mom- or dad-complexes bestowed upon them by their parents looking for validation probably wouldn't make good foster or adoptive parents no matter how much they feel obligated.  I'm sure there are a hundred other scenarios, but the obligation we have is a biblical mandate that doesn't necessarily require us all to do foster care or adoption.  It does, however, require us to do something.

The greatest reason for the world's population of orphans today is not the incredible number of children at 146 million.  It's not the rise of drug exposure, HIV/AIDS, the economy or any other related factor.  The greatest reason is INDIFFERENCE in the CHURCH.

And when I say the Church is obligated to do something, I don't just mean the rich American Church that spends billions on short-term mission trips so teenagers can site-see and build subpar housing that indigenous people could have done in order to maintain a living and billions more on buildings that sit empty 95% of the time.  I mean the global Church rising up to alleviate poverty, restore families, heal wounds and care for the least of these in their own backyards as a physical expression behind the words that Jesus came to reclaim what was lost.

That is our very privileged obligation.

Monday, February 20, 2012

orphan care is a trend

Our ministry, Embrace, works with churches all over Texas and various parts of the country to reclaim the care of orphans and waiting children.  In my role, I get to do a lot of initial contacts with church staff members and then training of leadership groups that consist of passionate individuals ready to live out the vision God places on their hearts.  But recently, I contacted a missions pastor briefly sharing the vision for what we do and the response went something like, "I've had a lot of people ask me about orphan care ministry lately, it must be the trendy thing to do nowadays."

It must be the trendy thing to do nowadays?  I wasn't offended at the time and I'm still not because I lived that same perspective.  I was a foster parent for five years before a mom of a couple of our students at our church approached my wife and I about starting an orphan care ministry at our church.  We knew we were called to be foster parents and saw that as a ministry of our family, but we had no idea the church should have any formal emphasis.  My favorite passage of the Bible had long been James 1:22, "Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves, but do what it says."  Only, I had failed to read five more verses down and apply to the Church that, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and keep oneself from being polluted by the world."  Orphan care as a mission of the Church is 2000 years old.  God wrote it into the Law in Deuteronomy 24 just to name one location.  Psalm 68:5-6 reads, "A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling.  He sets the lonely in families and leads out the prisoners with singing, but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land."

Trends usually end after a few months.  Poodle skirts were a trend.  Fedoras were a trend.  Boy bands were a trend.  Mullets were a trend.  Auto-tuning is a trend I hope ends sooner rather than later.   If orphan care is a trend, it has a better rate of revitalization than skinny jeans ever will.

So why would the Church see orphan care as a trend and not a fundamental aspect of its mission efforts?

In the 1960's and 70's, the United States government formally instituted foster care mandating each state to develop its own system.  Prior to that, there had been no comprehensive oversight to how families parented and provided for children on the part of the government.  Local communities and churches however had long since organized orphan care efforts.  Many of these efforts were aligned through a church's specific denomination which is why today we have agencies like the Texas Baptist Home for ChildrenPresbyterian Children's Home, and Methodist Children's Home.

But when foster care was federally mandated, many churches relegated orphan care to the state and assumed a trickle down economic philosophy by forwarding a percentage of their tithe to their denomination's convention which in turn funded these orphanages.  Whether that was intentional or circumstantial can probably only be determined on a case-by-case basis.  Needless to say, we now look at the orphan care crisis across the world and the needs of children in foster care here in our own backyards to realize the state cannot do this alone.  And, it probably wasn't their intention to exclude what efforts were going on indefinitely anyhow.

In short, the Church outsourced or abandoned a fundamental tenant of its mission, but we are reclaiming it.  That's not to say that we aren't making mistakes along the way, taking steps back at times in the short-sightedness of American Savior complexes, and improving our partnerships as we go.  It is to say...join us.  You may not be led to foster or adopt, but you are equipped with the time, ability and resources to do something that will speak the Good News of Christ's restoration into the life of a child that needs faith, hope and love.

If the jury is still out for you regarding orphan care as a foundational area of ministry in your church and reading the Bible has not swayed you, try reading Generous Justice by Timothy Keller or When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.  This isn't to say there aren't other areas of ministry that are foundational to the church's mission just that caring for the vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed is a way we tangibly live out the Gospel in restoring creation back to the Creator.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

the ugly beautiful

Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it. - Proverbs 22:6

Two weekends back our oldest son chose to move out on his own on a whim.  He didn't take any of his things with him.  He left one afternoon with what he said was an old friend from when he was in foster care several years ago then texted us the next day saying he didn't want to come back home.  He had just graduated high school and was starting college and a new job the next week.  He had been with us for more than three years, and while he had his issues, everyone (including him) thought he had matured and was ready to make more responsible decisions.

My wife and I were hopeful...we still are.  But we rack our brains grasping at straws for why this happened.  We were not indulgent or enabling.  If anything, we were strict and structured.  But upon returning home after graduation, we put the ball in his court and let him choose what his path would be.

An incredible ministry to porn addicts
& the porn industry...but not what I
wanted for my son.
Throughout high school, we discussed and experienced the importance of financial stewardship, integrity, and purity with the opposite sex.  We maintained a Love & Logic approach realizing that we couldn't bail him out of his problems or pity his self-induced dilemmas.  There are consequences for your choices, and as you get older, the impact of those consequences is deeper.  Ultimately, we came to find out that our son had drained his bank account in two weeks and was facing a debt of more than $200.  This is not an insurmountable climb by any means, but to a 19 year old who is paying for a phone and car insurance for the first's a rough start.  We also found that he had entered into the vast world of online adult services, where as an "adult", you can get together with other "adults" and pretend to be married for an evening or just an afternoon or just over the phone or just online.

This hurt.  We chose our son, and he abandoned us.  He had run away before when he was still a minor, and we worked through some of those issues to restore him.  But now, he is an adult (if only in a legal sense).  He had a fairly bright future.  We were not dreaming of him becoming a doctor or a lawyer, but a man who took the next step to finding himself and living life.  Being a liability to Average Joe Taxpayer was not our first choice for him.

So if we trained our child in the way he should go, why did he depart from it?

You may be reading this as a parent (whether you adopted or not) trying to avoid this path for your kids as you have set what is good in front of them and encouraged them to choose it.  The Book of Proverbs is what we call wisdom literature.  So when we interpret different passages, we have to consider what kind of language is being used.  Is it a story?  History?  Poem?  Parable?  Proverbs 22:6 is true, but it is not without exception.  9 times out of 10 a child that is trained in the way he should go will not depart from it when he is old.  But, this passage doesn't eliminate a child's capacity to choose which path he will take.

Choice is the ugly beautiful.  It means that we are not robots lacking the capacity to love God and one another deeply.  It also means that we maintain the ability to really mess life up for ourselves and others.  Choice gives us Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying, "Not my will, but yours" before he hands himself over to be beaten and crucified.  It also gives us Adam and Eve in another garden choosing disobedience which led to shame, cursing and murder.

Some will ask, do you regret adopting your son?  No.  We chose him, and that choice was not dependent upon his performance.  We are mourning his choices and wish more for him, but I suppose the exact same thing is true of our relationship with God.  He mourns some of our choices and rejoices in others.  God has much prepared for us to do and enjoy, but we too often settle for what is immediately gratifying rather than waiting for something better.

Our son was 15 and alone when we adopted him.  He had bounced between foster homes, residential treatment facilities and group homes.  He had been through two disrupted adoptive placements where someone told him they were his family then changed their minds when he didn't live up to their expectations.  We would still encourage families to adopt older children even as we sit in disbelief of our son's choices.  But his story is not over yet.  He is not given up on.  He is still and forever will be my son.

Monday, January 9, 2012

the E word

I sold work ethic for peace, and now second guess the deal I made.  If you've adopted a child who has experienced complex trauma from bouncing around in foster homes, being institutionalized or both, you know exactly what I mean.  You pick your battles, and at times, you cling to sanity and let everything else fall by the wayside.

We adopted our oldest son at age 17.  He had been in foster care for 8 years bouncing from home to home and school to school.  His math and writing skills weren't great but he could do the work if he wanted.  Only he didn't want to.  It was the biggest point of contention in our family.  Anytime grades, homework, class participation, etc. came up, confrontation, overreaction and a veritable windstorm of senselessness ensued.

So, we let it go.  We decided that our son's emotional attachment to us was more valuable than our control over his school work.  We try to parent in a sort of Love & Logic kind of way and believed that the consequences of his work ethic at school would catch up to him leaving him with two choices: dropout or work harder.  He had led us to believe that dropping out was not an option for him, but we were unprepared for what was hidden behind Door #3.

On multiple occasions, he chose to not do homework, turn it in half-done, or simply ask what extra credit work he could do at the end of the semester.  (Procrastination is the mother of invention... isn't that how the saying goes?)  And, on multiple occasions, teachers would not just give him a break but pass him along.  How do we address systems in our society that build a sense of entitlement into our kids?  Somewhere along the way what our culture commonly holds as an expectation became an entitlement.  I don't think his school felt he was entitled to graduate.  I guess they had other motives, but that was the message that was delivered.

He eventually graduated high school in a self-paced program that turned out to be more work than he thought.  And now he's faced with college, independence and keeping a job that he is dependent upon to pay a few bills.  And this will be a much harder lesson to learn as an adult without any enablers around to fall back on.  I suppose that every parent goes through something like this on some level.  Will they learn to budget their money?  Will they get overwhelmed by debt and ask me to bail them out? Will they stick with it or give up?

At some point, as parents, we have to stop looking in the mirror for our children who are no longer children and let them do it.  We have to let them see who they are and what they are made of.  My increasingly wise wife is a bulwark against entitlement.  So we may shed some tears for his struggles, but we won't be extending any bailouts.  In the next 5 years, the mantras we incessantly chanted about work ethic, integrity, stewardship, and faith are going to echo with all the truth reality can muster.

We don't know if he'll get it together, stick with college, or keep a job.  But, we move forward.  We teach our kids that they can carry around their baggage if they want, or they can forgive and move forward too.  And for my son and my peace, that is where we are...moving forward.  He is now entitled to bear my name, be unconditionally loved by his family and work for everything he gets from here.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd do a better job of holding my son's school accountable.  I'd be more proactive when my son got overwhelmed with his school work and took it out on his mom...and I'd probably still make the same deal.  If you're in the midst of this, there's no such thing as a win-win.  School isn't the pinnacle of achievement in life, but it's certainly a training ground for things that matter.  Attachment in adoption is a goal, but it doesn't happen overnight or even in the way you expect it.  So strive for work ethic and attachment, but don't presume either will come easy or that you'll find some peace if you sell one for the other.  It's not a storybook ending...but then again, my son's only 20, so the story isn't even close to being over yet.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

white porcelain silence

The volume of my house could drive Tibetan monks to drunkenness especially when all the kids are out of school for Christmas break.  I feel very Grinch-like at times with all the noise, noise, noise!  But the other night at dinner, as our kids settled into their seats, we held hands, closed our eyes to give thanks and then just sat there without saying anything.

If your house is like my house, you move at 100 mph from the minute your kids wake up until about the third time you've told them to go to sleep.  My best moments of solace are found when I'm sitting on the toilet... although there's always the chance one of my kids will fight through that awkward scene in need of some attention.  Each night before we send them to bed, we attempt to read something together, but we inevitably have to send half of them somewhere else due to the shortened attention spans of six children under the age of 9.

On this particular night, my family didn't need another prayer asking God to bless our meal and help us be mindful of others.  We just needed silence... we could hardly manage it though.  My 5 year old son looked at me and said, "Dad, say something."  My wife looked at me and said, "Are you going to pray?"  I had them sit there as long as we could holding hands without a sound until my wife said, "Amen." and we began eating.

We tend to find comfort in noise.  We need something to fill the air in the event that our thoughts get too loud.  The busyness of life keeps us moving and feeling productive.  If it's too quiet we turn on some music.  When we don't like what we hear we turn on the television.  Our kids reflect this.  Any TV show that doesn't change scenes every 5 seconds is boring to them.  They don't know how to play outside without begging for a break from mother nature to return to video gaming.

On a different night, I was explaining the importance of the Sabbath to our 8 & 9 year old daughters from a story in the Bible where Jesus healed a man.  They told me they remembered the Sabbath because it's the day I lay on the couch and tell them we're not doing anything or else God will smite us.  (It's true.)

I once asked a group of students what they think about when they're all alone with nothing to do sitting in the dark.  Many of them said they could not remember the last time they were in that situation...and if they did they immediately turned a light on, put on some headphones and avoided the void.  Some, however, responded profoundly about their thoughts about God, their own existence, their relationships and so we went on to discuss the significance of the two-way conversation between Creator and Created known as prayer.

I hope my kids will learn that God is not a vending machine filled with treats where if you give the right amount or push the right buttons this cold, oversized box delivers what you want.  Instead, I hope they will learn to listen, be patient, and wonder.  I hope they can have deep and meaningful conversations with their friends and future spouse.  I hope they will find their value not by what they do but by the integrity of their character.  I hope all these hopes were instilled in them in 15 seconds of silence before dinner one night... but they weren't.

Silence and solace aren't things we just wake up and choose to do for a few minutes... they're a discipline we practice.  Sabbath was meant to be a weekly occurrence not so we could be unproductive but so we could remember and reflect.  My family will probably never sit around in a circle, sing kum-bye-ya and pretend that we're then at peace with the world or anything.  But, we will be intentional about embracing a silence that requires us to slow down, remember where we've been and know that God alone is God.