Tuesday, September 23, 2014

All We Taught Him

We had 8 kids.  Three were added to the family the old-fashioned way where a man loves a woman, a bee loves a bird or something to that effect.  And, five were added the other old-fashioned way where a child wants a family, a family wants a child, a judge slings a gavel and an adoption or in our case five adoptions are finalized.

But we like kids.  So, we asked, "You think we need one more?  You think we need one more.  Let's have one more."  And once again, we went the old fashioned route.  And, we added what we currently consider our final biological child to the family... Chapel Henry Kendrick.

It's been great.  He's real chunky.  He still has his baby blue eyes.  He eats some solids, drools a lot, and army crawls all over the place.  He says, "Dada" and "Mama", and we taught him some sign language so he could tell us when he wants more rather than screaming at us.  The "more" sign has just become him clapping, and he uses it for everything which probably means we failed in actually teaching him sign language.  Nonetheless, it's super cute and works for us.

He's about ten months old now.  Whereas our other children all started sleeping through the night no later than four months after joining the family, Chapel, well... he still doesn't sleep through the night.  It's been a fairly consistent schmorgesborg of co-sleeping, night nursing, frantic pacing while patting him back to sleep, and the ever-popular crib-to-bed-to-crib rotation.  We have never devolved into circling the neighborhood with him in the backseat of one of our cars, but if it would give my wife a full night's sleep... I'd circle all night long.

We decided last night to stand our ground.  We've nurtured dozens of children and never had this problem for this long of a time before.  I don't recall having to "stand my ground" in the past.  Usually, they just started sleeping through the night to our pleasant surprise.  Regardless, we chose to let him cry it out no matter how long he wales from less than 10 ft. from the end of our bed in his crib.

And so it began.  Some time in the early hours of the night he fussed for a second and then launched into a blitzkrieg assault on our eardrums.  At first, we tried to ignore him.  Then I gave a stern, "Chapel, lay down and go to sleep."  Then my wife got up, walked to his crib, told him, "No.", and laid him back down. After what felt like an hour of auditory abuse, I walked over to the crib, gently but firmly laid him back down, proceeded to pat and massage him back to sleep, and reminded him he was not getting out of bed. My wife and I laid back down, and in her steadfast support, she said, "Any other ideas?"  My reply, "Got any earplugs?"  She did.  We put them in, and the cacophony subsided to a dull roar, but we were still aware of his presence.

After a few minutes using our earplug tactic, all of our defenses were torn down by Chapel's most lethal maneuver yet.  In the midst of his desperation for someone to come sooth his anxiety, he resorted to the only form of communication we had taught him.  He started clapping.  We could not muffle the sound of his marshmallowy, little hands coming together, and it broke us.  I pulled my earplugs out, walked over to his crib, and lifted him into my arms.  I held him for a minute as his cries turned into a rhythmic whimper, and he caught his breath.  We sat down in the rocking chair used so many nights in the past, and I massaged his back, patted his bottom and told him he was okay.  He slowly turned his whimper into a sniffle, his sniffle into heavy breathing and his heavy breathing into a sleepy rest.

Children communicate the way we teach them.  In our care of abused and neglected children in foster care this has been just as true as in our care of biological children.  Abused and neglected children often come with a litany of communication skills both verbal and non-verbal.  Some cuss.  Some hit.  Some don't cuss or hit, but they scream.  We had another little girl who was 4 but functioned on an 18 month old level.  She knew two words, "teevees" and "mommy".  Anytime she took a bath and we had to get her hair wet, she lost it, and IT. WAS. PIERCING.  She was with us for 14 months, and by the time she was reunified with her mom, she was a healthy, little girl who could take a bath, talk to her peers and express herself to adults.

We had a nine month old placed with us for a time who had grown up in a Spanish-speaking only home.  So he cried anytime he wasn't asleep for about two weeks, and then one night my wife said, "Que paso, papi?"  He perked up immediately.  From then on, we knew we had to change the way we communicated with him so he could communicate with us.  Still some don't make any sounds at all.  When a child has sat in a crib or been locked in a room and learned no one is coming, they lose their voice.  They just freeze and wait until they're not being addressed or until whatever is going to happen happens.

If a child has only been taught to hit, cuss, scream, be silent, clap or speak a completely different language, they will use those means to talk to us.  If we, as parents, want them to use their voice to express their fears, anger or needs, we must be patient and observant enough to learn about where they lost their voice so we can help them find it and give it back to them.  Sometimes the patience and observation required for a child to calm down so you can help or the gentleness needed to comfort them through things is the equivalent of ten months of sleep deprivation.

After Chapel snuggled his chubby cheeks into my neck, I spent five more minutes rubbing his back and listening to him breath.  I placed him back in his crib and covered him with his blanket.  I walked back to bed and laid down.  Less than 30 seconds later... he was rooting around in his crib again just before the onslaught resumed.  I could hear my wife subduing her laughter next to me.

I don't doubt there will be more embattled, sleepless nights in my future.  In the same way my children from foster care didn't stop cussing, hitting, screaming or freezing just because I was patient with them one time, Chapel will continually need comfort and reassurance that he is not alone and not forgotten.  Like every child, he needs help finding his voice and will require direction throughout life.

Hear your kids and know they often only communicate in the ways they have been taught.  If we don't teach them any other way, we can only expect what has been modeled.  Be patient.  Observe.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Holding On & Letting Go

I was just a panel member for a "Dads Only" session.  I had been told to brace myself in the vein of Job 38-40 because the same session at this conference the year before left everyone with a palpable taste of the Holy Spirit's presence.  I was running a bit late from a previous session so I didn't bother to "gird up my loins" or anything and whimsically took a mic and sat down.  Within ten minutes we were faced with a father weeping and attempting to exhale between the cathartic sobs from the loss of a child reunified with the child's birth mother.  They had been in communication with her, and she confirmed she was not in a better place than she was prior to her child's removal.  They were planning to adopt, and yet, this.  He took a deep gulp of air, and after a second, asked, "How do we do it?  How do we love them as our own and let them go?  How do we trust God afterwards when we know the child won't be safe?"

I attempted to shift back on my stool hoping to convey to the other panelists, "You got this, go ahead, I'll get the next one.", but it only brought attention to me.  So in an attempt to provide a measure of truth, honesty and hope to the man, I replied, "You stay broken."  Or, it was something to that effect followed by some yammerings of what that meant.  (Did I mention I had failed to brace myself?)  As other men began to encourage him, one older gentlemen turned and said, "You have no idea what kind of healing impact you have had on this child's life.  Research shows how the brain heals when a developing child is consistently nutured.  You are not without hope and neither is that child."  That's what I meant to say.  The panelist next to me commented, "He should be up here, and we should be setting up tables and chairs for lunch."  I was asked to lead a prayer over this father where I reached for words of comfort and wisdom, and then we respectfully moved on to share and respond regarding other questions and struggles in the room.  But, the anguish of this dad stuck with me... it stuck with all of us.

Undoubtedly, there are some children who come into our homes as foster families, and when they leave, we pack them up, encourage them, hug them, the door closes and an audible, collective sigh is heard throughout the house. One of our kids probably even voices the thought, "Glad she is going home."  We scold them, and then look at our spouse resonating with our child's sentiment.  But something happens as time passes... the missed days of work due to the child's sickness, the temper tantrums, and the lack of personal hygiene all become endearing qualities of this hurting child who was family for a time.  This is not to mention the very real occassions when we heard that child's laughter, received their trust or had the privilege of teaching them what a bounce house was... or better yet, what it's like to have seconds and thirds at dinner.  I still hold onto those memories firmly and pray for the wellbeing of those children knowing while they were in my family, I was responsible for them.  They were mine, and yet they weren't.

Some children, on the other hand, crush us.  They have behaviors and quirks that drive us nuts, but for any number of reasons, we bond with them, and they bond with us.  And the case is prolonged as the birth family does or doesn't do what is required for reunification, and we bond some more.  The child usually begins calling us mom and dad from no prompting of our own after a couple of weeks.  The child is with us for holidays and birthdays and un-birthdays where we get to know them even more.  The children already in our home play with them and build unsuspected alliances and friendships.  And, then... we get a call or someone pulls us aside, and it's time for reunification or a family member is stepping in, or we're not the adoptive family any more because [insert myriad of circumstances here].  There are some legitimatly good reasons for these circumstances, and others not always so good.  Either way, we are crushed.  It's just hard, and we and our children are broken with a seemingly missing member of the family that was ours to love, provide for and protect... and yet again, they weren't.

I'm not going to Jesus-juke you here and start talking about how none of our children really belong to us, and how we're just stewards and so on.  It's true, but not helpful when we're confronted with a foster dad who feels like he lost his son.  It's also not helpful to extrapolate the perspective of the other involved parties, namely the child, but in time, we must prioritize ourselves in the appropriate place.  Hasn't the child been struggling with his or her loyalties and feelings of belonging and self-worth on top of the sneaking suspicion abandonment is around the corner?  Or, is there a word for family preservation on par with our zeal for adoption?  Shouldn't we be prioritizing and celebrating reunification with the birth family in seeking their best interest rather than our own?  The answer is undeniably yes but often at our personal expense.  If we are to hold on and let go, we must remember we are not the only broken ones in this story.  Birth parents often mask their brokenness with drugs and violence, children by rejecting us before we have a chance to reject them,  and, we, as foster or adoptive families, "manage" by closing our doors.  At some point, it has to cease to be about us.  And yet, there are still some of us rightfully wrestling with God over a reunification that should not have been.

There is a twinge of matter-of-factness to holding on and letting go once we have fostered a few children.  This is a reality few are willing to verbalize.  It's not that we methodically hold a child close enough to feel welcome but distant enough to not attach.  We just better understand and bravely face the pending brokenness that awaits because we've been through it before.  If our motivations are centered around adoption this heightens our sensitivity because the anticipation builds.  We hurt, surround ourselves with people who will remind us of why we signed on in the first place, give ourselves space and time, and then do it all over again waiting for new circumstances with the next child. We stay broken for the needs of vulnerable families and children and the heart of God.  We press deeply into the Comforter in our sorrow where explanations and closure aren't always found but peace revives us to continue walking faithfully forward.  If we are sincere about the biblical mandates to care for the vulnerable, we will make ourselves available to whatever God brings our way.  Sometimes God brings adoption and other times reunification and still other times prolonged uncertainty.  He gives and takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

So Your Pastor Doesn't Get It

Here's how the conversation tends to go.  After a series of questions and answers about foster parenting or adoption or starting an orphan care ministry...

Me:  It sounds like you have a great passion for this... how else can we help?

Them:  My pastor doesn't get it.  To him (or her), it's just a trend or an extra kind of optional ministry he believes will cost money we don't have or take away our congregation's focus on evangelism or discipleship or the capital campaign...  I've been persistent, but I'm getting nowhere.  What did you do?...

Well, sadly, I was that pastor just like I was that husband that didn't get it.  My wife approached me to become foster parents, and I just thought, "Sure, I guess we have an extra room, and I've read something in the Bible about caring for orphans."  And likewise, even though I had been foster parenting for more than 6 years at the time, a mom of a couple of our students in the student ministry who had no background in child welfare or social work approached us asking, "Would you help me start an orphan care ministry here at the church?"  My response, "Yes!... but what's an orphan care ministry?"

Since then, I've come across a number of pastors varying on the continuum of resistance to orphan care ministry.  Worries of cost, theology, parenting philosophy, bandwidth, etc. seem to form in a cloud behind their eyes as the plea floats across their desk, and a determined but politically correct, "No." forms in their lips.

It's discouraging to say the least.  We read it over and over again throughout Scripture... Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Psalm 68:5-6, Isaiah 1:17, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:4-7, Ephesians 1:5, and James 1:27, but no passage has been more poignant in my understanding of our mandate to care for orphans, widows, and foreigners than Jeremiah 22:15-16,

"Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?  Did not your father have food and drink?  He did what was right and just, so all went well with him.  He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well with him.  Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the LORD.

To defend the cause of the poor and needy is what it means to know God?  In part, it's not that your pastor doesn't know these passages, it's that your pastor is human with limited vision to all the Holy Spirit is working in.  Just as pastors and seminary professors prior to decades as late as the 90's (and still many today sadly) failed to see that their is no segregation or discrimination in the kingdom of God, they're missing this as well.  But, the cloud of concerns that formed behind their eyes as you pled with them is legitimate.  Who is going to give to this?  Is that giving going to impact other areas of giving the church has prioritized?  Is it going to be championed by someone or a group who understands orphan care in respect to the entire kingdom and message of the Gospel?  Will it become it's own little clique?  Am I going to be expected to spearhead the effort or hand over the pulpit to the cause?  And even if all those questions are answered, he may feel you are the wrong person to lead this only he can't say that out loud.  So, these are just a few in a litany of questions that must be addressed and solved over time.  Pastors get hit up with "pet projects" of church member's who may have previously not followed through all the time.  Or, it may be some outside parachurch organization that really just wants money, and like many of us in response to telemarketers, the answer is a premeditated, "We'll see.", "Let's talk later." or my personal favorite, "I'll pray about it."

Of course, there are still those pastors whose response is less thoughtful, and anything to do with social justice is met immediately with a closed door.  Why?  George Marsden coined the term "The Great Reversal" in his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture.  In the early twentieth century, evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity.  Liberals led the social gospel movement equating any humanitarian work with reinstating the reign of Christ.  As the movement spread, evangelicals distanced themselves and bunkered down in theology to the detriment of the poor.  This is at least one factor in your pastor's response.

Another is the ignorance of the masses.  In speaking with a pastor friend recently and sharing about what our family and ministry does, he said, "The first thing that comes to mind when I think of foster care or adoption is a child coming into my house and ruining my life.  I'm glad to share insight about the strategic approach of your ministry, but if you're trying to get me to become a foster parent or adopt, the conversation is over."  This wasn't the only thing he said, his insight was helpful, and he genuinely resonated with the needs of children as we talked so I don't want to vilify him... but this is how the masses, including some pastors, perceive foster care and adoption.  I would suggest the same is true for the homeless, the poor, widows and immigrants.

So if your pastor doesn't get it (and we should note that some pastors do get it, and do a great job of encouraging their lay leaders to engage in the care of orphans), he is most likely indirectly or directly influenced from the Great Reversal and/or the common misconceptions and negative media attention given to foster parents and neglected and abused children.  Also, your pastor's seminary almost certainly did not address caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow or the foreigner in his missiology studies.  They focused on church planting, unreached people groups, the Gospel in different cultural contexts, an evangelism practicum, and so on.  Little or no time was spent discussing poverty alleviation, economic development among the poor, child development or the fact that the Church's historic foundation was built through ministry done by and to "the least of these".  Your pastor didn't obtain a social work degree in seminary.

I suppose that's all the bad news.  We may have missed some details or circumstances in there somewhere, but in general, that is why a pastor doesn't get it.

Here's the good news... your pastor doesn't hold the keys to the kingdom of God.  I don't say this to be controversial or encourage dissent, I say it because churches have far too long seen themselves as consumers of religion and their staff as producers of it.  In reality, your pastor, as one of the elders, should be equipping, encouraging and multiplying disciples as ministers of the Gospel.  But even if they're not, you don't need your pastor's permission to obey the Holy Spirit.  In fact, your pastor may appreciate the fact that you are not seeking his continual involvement or blessing over every aspect of the ministry God has called you to.

In the event your pastor has actively discouraged you from this, as an ordained pastor myself, I would encourage you to find another local church where you are fed, equipped and sent out.  This should not be done in a spirit of disrespect or division.  Make your peace, and move on.  This is at least one reason why denominations and more than one local church can and should exist in a community.  We are not all [insert name of denomination here] and that's okay.  I grant this is not an issue of non-essential doctrine, but alienating yourself in an embattled stance on the need for orphan care ministry to the detriment of all involved parties can't be a preferred course of action.

It should be noted here that if we had to select one mission of the Church outside of worship (if we can in fact separate worship out from anything we do) it would not be orphan care... it would be evangelism, and the two are not synonymous.  They certainly overlap in ways.  In paraphrasing Dr. Russell Moore, "For us to say we care for the orphan, and to not share Christ's message of salvation is to say we don't really care for the orphan.  Every human being is comprised of a body, soul and spirit, and to merely care for the temporal needs is not in fact loving as Christ loved us."  Salvation is tantamount, but the Scriptures don't seem to neglect having a family or basic needs as if to say, "You can be saved or eat... choose one."  Their is a tension held between the two throughout Scripture (see Isaiah 1James 2, 1John 3:18).

If you are already embattled or there is nowhere else to go, I would encourage you in the same way I have encouraged wives and husbands who are at odds over foster parenting or adoption or an unbelieving spouse.  Pray unceasingly for the movement of the Spirit in your marriage, church and community.  Pray for your pastor.  (Shouldn't this be something we are doing anyhow!?)  Advocate for vulnerable children with other members of your church.  Again, this is not an encouragement to stir up conflict, but at the very least the volunteers or nursery workers who are caring for your foster or adopted child need to be educated.  (For a resource to get you started read Dear Sunday School Volunteer.)

As you are praying, begin working as the Spirit guides you.  Encourage and support other foster and adoptive families.  Gather other advocates in other churches who are experiencing or not experiencing similar resistance and work together.  God is not interested in which person's or church's name is attached to this ministry... this heart-wrenching, self-sacrificing, continually plodding forward ministry that reflects and is the heart and redemption of God.

In our frustration, perseverance and faithfulness, to Him be the praise, glory, honor and power forever and ever.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Allure of Being Needed and a Plate of Nachos

This morning I received a text from a friend, "You okay?  You seemed a bit off last night.  Just checking on you."  Last night was our monthly foster & adoptive dads gathering at a crazy good taco joint called Fuzzy's (if you have the means, I highly recommend it).  I replied, "Yeah, I'm okay.  I just felt off.  I suppose I just needed to sit down, gorge myself on nachos and zone out."

The past couple of months have been... I'm gonna need to make up a word here to really pinpoint it... chaostive (chaos + exhaustive)?  Coming off a relatively busy Fall traveling across the country, our son was born at the end of November, our oldest daughter had major jaw surgery, our nonprofit organization felt like it was financially hanging in the balance for a couple weeks, several families contacted us needing counsel as they sat on the precipice of implosion, my wife and I hit our highest weights since we've been married and started a new diet/exercise regimen, we had 8 children in the home over the holidays ALL DAY LONG and it's all gearing up again.

So... I didn't realize it until my friend texted me, but "a bit off" may have been an understatement.  Today is a new day, but there's this lingering hangover from busyness I've been unable to shake.  A mantra I've echoed for years now has been, "When I get to Heaven, I want to be able to tell God I held nothing back and exhausted every opportunity to serve, love and worship."  This noble thought is engraved on my mind, but it is easily confused with the allure of being needed and the presumption I must keep moving forward.

It feels good to be asked to help someone who is hurting... to have advice or answers that solves the struggle a friend wrestles with.  It is confirmation that I have endured and grown wise in my experience where others recognize my strength... but it, like most things left unchecked, leads to a subtle, often falsely humble, pride.  This pride is only emboldened (although occasionally miffed) by the passerby who routinely states, "I don't know how you do it."  as you grocery shop with your children in-tow.  But it only energizes me to a point until my "can-do" attitude evaporates in the wind, and I awaken to my lacking self-sufficiency along with indigestion from incredibly good nachos and a text message from a friend.

We experience this allure of being needed in foster care and adoption regularly both as advocates and parents.  We want to help, we want to serve, we feel called, we have space and love to give... a surplus of goodwill to be poured out from our reserves.  The problem is this isn't a math equation.  The often used illustration of bucket-dippers and bucket-fillers does not apply because we see ourselves as always full with more than enough, but we tend to parent and exist on reserves.  The Holy Spirit has a great way of exposing and healing us from this idea...they're called children.

This pivotal tactic works on almost anyone.  While children undoubtedly need us, they are continuous puzzles never beyond progress yet never within the reach of completion.  What works for one may or may not work for the other.  They can never fully reciprocate what we give them and most of them don't even know they are supposed to be trying.  Throwing up our hands and quitting on them is not an option.  Even when we lock ourselves in our rooms or escape to work while they are at school, they are there when we get home or knocking at the door in need of something.  The pride begins to dissipate.

We think we must "Press on and press in" or "Let go and let God" or "The family that prays together stays together", but no amount of cliches kills our pride like the freedom provided by a text message that reminds you to slow down amidst all the work that needs to be done and/or the tinkering sound of a child's fingernail unlocking a bathroom door to tell you something immensley significant in their world.  No problem was created in a day nor will one be solved as immediately.

In moments such as this, words like selah and sabbath echo in my mind.  For as much strength or wisdom or love as we have to offer, we must consistently be reminded of our own poverty.  God is not dependent on my talents and efforts... in fact, He seems to do quite well in spite of them.  I realize this is a season as my newborn learns to sleep through the night, my daughter heals and the rest of my children return to school, but I am resting in two truths.  One.  I am not alone.  In my presupposed strength and pseduo-independence when I believe I can stand firm on my own... I am not alone.  Two. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.  When I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, it is probably because I'm trying to carry a world that is not mine to carry.

It feels good to think you can do it all... to say, "Yes" to every need that comes your way, but in reality sometimes we need to be silent and contrite as we sit still and abide.  This is worship too.  This is often what's best in our parenting or care... not more advice, lectures or attachment exercises.  Give yourself space and breath... peferably with a plate of nachos in front of you.