Friday, July 24, 2015

We’re Almost Done

We must have said it every day for the past six months.  “We’re almost done.”

Almost done downsizing everything we own in preparation to travel the country with 8 of our children in a camper.  Like any good American family, we have moved before gradually increasing our square footage along with the trappings required to fill our square footage, but we have never moved with 8 children and the stuff that has accumulated with them… nor have we ever transitioned from 3000 square feet down to 300 square feet.

This move was like the end of a five year game of hide-n-go seek where the stuff that never knew where to hide gave itself up first while the stuff camouflaged in the crevices of the house held out until the bitter end.

We’ve almost been done a hundred times over.  The move started when we sold the larger pieces of furniture we didn’t want to keep or put in storage.  Over the years, our house has been designed around a theme we like to call “garage sale chic” so there was quite a bit we didn’t mind parting with.  Then came the first purge of clothing and its mountain of affiliated hangers.  We were keeping much of the clothing as hand-me-downs from one age group of kids to the next since our children span from 22 to 1 1/2 years old, but when you have space for less than ten outfits per person, storing hand-me-downs is no longer an issue.

Next, we held a garage sale.  Our driveway, front yard and garage were covered with stuff.  After a full Saturday morning, we entered the long awaited hour where everything must go!  We hit one o’clock, and if you could fit it into your vehicle, it was yours… but we still had a lot of stuff left.

March hit, and we needed to list the house to rent which meant any art or wall hangings had to come down and any remaining clutter had to be organized.  We realized we had already gotten rid of so much we barely had enough furniture to stage the house which was problematic because it meant we still had enough furniture to stage a 3000 square foot house!

As the days passed, more and more stuff trickled out the door to family, neighbors and our pregnant trash can.  The last week of May required us to begin the official transition to the camper where we took everything left at the house and either trashed it, stored it, Goodwilled it, or brought it with us.  The garage became a field of prairie dog mounds as piles of stuff came out from the recesses of our home.  Stuff was shifted from bedrooms to hallways, upstairs to downstairs, living spaces to garage spaces until the last of it was gone.

The cleaners came.  The carpets were steam cleaned.  The house was empty.

Yet, after months of downsizing, we still had to take two van loads full of trash bags to the dump.  Our storage unit was bursting at the seams, our trash can was giving birth one last time, and our camper was overflowing with unsorted containers of clothing and miscellany.

After all this, the culminating realization that we, the Kendrick family, had too much stuff was revealed in two separate events.  

The first was the sorting of our bathroom supplies.  A 300 square foot camper only has one bathroom so there is no place to store surplus shampoo, toothpaste or towels.  But as I unpacked the tubs of personal hygiene products, the quantity of nail clippers we actually owned came to light.  At first, it was three pairs.  Three pairs isn’t excessive in a two-story home.  You might even say it’s conservative.  We might have a pair upstairs, a pair downstairs and an extra in a travel bag.  Then, three pairs jumped to five pairs.  Five pairs made me chuckle a bit and shake my head, but the next box unveiled three more pairs.  Eight pairs had me moderately concerned, but then the last box was sorted, and… we entered double-digits.  Even for a family with nine children in 3000 square feet, that many pairs of nail clippers is a sign of over-consumption and chaos.

The second event was a series of the same conversation with a myriad of friends.  They would ask, “How is it going?”  We would say, “You don’t realize how much stuff you have, and how much you don’t need until you’re forced to account for it all.”  Then they would say, “Yeah, you’re right.  We have a huge house with rooms we just look at but never use.  We don’t need all that space.  It’s just more to clean, more to put stuff in, more to have.”  We both shake our heads, laugh at our own absurdity, and know nothing will be done about it.

For me, these two happenings elicited an introspective look into my psyche.  In moving into this tiny space, we were forced to make the Earth our home.  If anyone in our family ever feels cramped, we simply say, “Go outside, you literally have the entire world to be free in… literally the entire world!”  There is no ceiling and there are no walls.  But in a house, we are seemingly trying to fit more of the world into the confines of brick and mortar.  We pretty it up, but it is never as creative as a sunrise, as breathtaking as an open sky or as freeing as an uncultivated field.  We have both literally and metaphorically fenced ourselves in even though an adventurous frontier awaits.

The significance of this point is fleeting though.  We routinely wrestle with contentment.  When we return to our home a year from now, we will inevitably re-engage in the accumulation of the ever-illusive nail clippers.  The game of hide-n-go-seek will resume, and without an intentional effort, a good portion of our life will succumb to the management of our stuff.

We are adjusting quite well to life in 300 square feet.  As it turns out, one bathroom for ten people isn’t that inconvenient, and I only need ten shirts, a couple pair of pants and some shorts to make it through any given week.  But the question remains - if less is more, how do we live with less?  How do we get to a place where we stop saying, “We’re almost done.”? 

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Spiritual Act of Unclogging a Toilet

It was our first night in the camper.  We were staying at an RV Park five minutes from our house as we transitioned from life in suburbia to life on the road.  We had setup in the rain while the children were relegated to wait in the van, and all of them were in dire need of the one shared bathroom available.  We finally released them from captivity only to realize we would need to make one more run back to the house to grab some vital things for the next day.

So I hopped back in the van with two of our daughters, and while we were scurrying across the house to collect everything, my phone rang.  On the other end of the line was my wife saying the toilet wasn’t flushing in the camper.  As my mind quickly ran through troubleshooting options to give my wife over the phone, I knew nothing could really be done until I got there.  After all, one of the top five responsibilities of every husband and father, which cannot be delegated to a child or wife, is the fixing of emergency toilet problems.

We loaded up and drove back to the RV Park to be greeted by a line of children still in need of that sacred sanctuary of relief.  I walked into the phone-booth-sized bathroom to open the lid, and at the bottom of the toilet was nothing more than some toilet paper.  I flushed the toilet and everything seemed to work normally.  The special camper toilet ran water and opened the slide which dropped the toilet paper down into the tank of the camper.  I thought maybe they had forgotten how to use the foot lever to flush.

I stepped out and the next customer in line stepped in.  She flushed and exited, then the next child stepped forward.  Then came the pause, “Dad! It’s not flushing again.”  Feeling an air of confidence, I walked back in, and sure enough, it wasn’t working.  I could floor the foot lever to flush the toilet, and all I could see was the toilet paper sitting on top of darkness.  The water began to build up.  So I did what any frustrated, overly ambitious, amateur plumber would do… I thrust my arm into the hole and to my unsuspecting surprise pulled out a pile of $&!#.

As this surreal experience was playing itself out, I immediately began looking for the perpetrator who should be conscripted as my plumbing assistant.  I turned into Sherlock Holmes as I deduced who was waiting in line to go to the bathroom, who had traveled back to the house with me and could not be a suspect, and who was left in the crosshairs of my investigation while toilet refuse moistened my arm from elbow to finger tips.

The subdued rage must have been just as palpable as the smell because no confession was forthcoming.  And thinking back on it… I don’t blame them.  Would you confess to stopping up the only toilet nine of your family members were restricted to on the first night of a yearlong adventure with your father’s arm dripping excrement while veins visibly pulsated in his neck?  Not if you even had a chance of avoiding it, you wouldn’t.

It is in moments such as this that I am reminded of two parenting truths.  First, if you want your children to be honest with you, don’t turn into the Gestapo whenever they have done something wrong.  Secondly, and more importantly, a fundamental component of being a parent is getting exfoliated by your children’s $&!#.  It’s almost spiritual to the degree of being intimate and humbling in the most grotesque of ways.

Needless to say, I never caught the culprit.  After a fierce hand-to-hand battle, the clogged toilet gave up the ghost, and we have permanently installed a “No #2” policy for the camper.  This has not prevented additional skirmishes of the same sort from arising because the human digestive tract knows no authority during times of crisis.  However, I am now seasoned in the art of decongesting toilets and judiciously training apprentices.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dear Governor Abbott

Dear Governor Abbott:

In response to the recent deaths of three children in foster care, you recently wrote a letter to Commissioner John Specia of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services stating your desire to see stronger measures put in place to prevent fatalities of children in the state's custody.

Caring for children cannot be a risk-management business approached from an attitude of curbing liability.  We must think comprehensively what is in the best interest of children, and if we are waiting until the State is being sued and children have died to allocate funds addressing the worst-case scenario, we have already failed.

While I applaud your sense of urgency to allocate $40M to prevent the deaths of children in foster care, $40M to prevent death is money spent too little, too late.  It is as if the State of Texas is saying, "Sorry, we didn't work to prevent the abuse and neglect that brought you into the foster care system in the first place. Sorry, we didn't hire enough caseworkers to visit you every month and know the condition of your care. But, now that you're in foster care, and we're afraid you might die, here is $40M."

Imagine what $40M could do in the hands of organizations using evidence-based methods to equip parents and professionals to help children thrive.  Our tax dollars should not be spent to patch holes in a struggling foster care system.  If we are going to spend tax dollars to ensure children do not die in foster care, we should do it right and address the safety of children long before death is a real possibility.

Sincerely,

A concerned citizen

Friday, March 20, 2015

When Ministry Becomes Family... and Back Again

It feels cheap now but we frankly didn't know any better.  We had an empty room.  We knew kids were in foster care without families.  So we thought it would be a ministry of our family.  We never thought the ministry would become family.

It took us years of having children removed into foster care and placed in our home until it clicked with us that people, especially vulnerable, neglected and abused children, aren't a ministry.  They are people.  If they don't have a relationship with us where we give what they take and we take what they give, they're really little more than a client in a quasi-business transaction.

Since Christ's words lead us beyond a master and servant exchange to one of friends in John 15:15 this seemed like a more appropriate perspective.  But, we just wanted to help... we wanted to "make a difference."  As these children came and went, some moving to other foster homes to be united with siblings, some moving to live with relatives, and some staying until their parents satisfied the State and were reunified, we awoke to the reality that something much deeper was happening.

We started to become accountable.

Initially, we thought we were providing a safe place with consistent boundaries and food.  We thought they were the ones who needed our help.  But, we were more than just caretakers of these children, and they were more than just receivers of our goodwill.  We became Mom and Dad if only for a few weeks or months.  Those titles change the way you think.  It's more than a label when a child, any child, looks to you for protection, guidance and healing.

And, where we could see the glaring effects of neglect and abuse on these children leaving them broken, we began to see our brokenness too.  We had put ourselves together with some facsimile of competence and assuredness doing a rather nice job of covering our shortcomings.  Children have a way of exposing you though.  So we received their goodwill and patience with us as we learned to prioritize what truly matters.  It was there that we learned when a child is placed in our home, when we open our door, we are accountable.  We have not just invited ministry to occupy a space.  We have extended the definition of family by making our family available to children without a family or in many cases an appropriate family.  As my friend Jason Johnson puts it, "We are giving a family not just getting a child."

But, there are more.

More than my home can contain.  More than the time God has allotted to me can be divided.  There are more.  Millions more.  So what started as a ministry and turned into family turned back into ministry again.  But this new ministry wasn't necessarily just the ministry of my family within my family.  It was a ministry of my family to help other families redefine what it is to be family.

We can't help but be patient with others since we started our family with a relatively misconceived idea, but we challenge the notions of race, age, birth order and borders.  We challenge the idea that a person is too old to be adopted or adopt.  We challenge the hesitance a line drawn on a map creates in us to give family to a child in another state or country.  And, we challenge the contentment that can come when a child is adopted into our home because there are more.

So my hope is not to incite you into adopting children until you can field your own football team.  My hope is to extend your perspective from opening your home to make a difference in the life of a child to redefining what family is to multiplying a new perspective of what family is to other families.  You may do this by joining an existing organization or ministry that serves vulnerable children and families like Safe Families for Children or CASA.  Or, you may find yourself in an area where the Church has gone dark in this regard, and God uses you to shine the Light back on his heart for the fatherless (Deut. 10:18-19, Psalm 68:5-6, Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27).

If we can help, we'd certainly like to do so, and you can visit www.EmbraceMinistry.org to get started.