Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What's New?


For those who have been following this blog for the last four years have probably noticed - there hasn't been a new post since November. Many have asked or messaged me about whether or not I will be returning to write anything new for this blog?  My only answer is, "Possibly."

I have, however, started a new blog entitled Begin With Wonder and it picks up, in many ways, where I left off with this one. If you have enjoyed or been challenged by my posts like "Vulnerable Messiah" or "Go Into The Stillness" or "In The Valley With Job: Dealing With Depression And Loss," then this new blog fits right into that niche. While it's not a blog with stories about our family, there are posts that deal with my faith in terms of my daily life, a great part of which involves being a husband and father.

So, if you have missed reading my blog posts, then check out the new site:
http://beginwithwonder.blogspot.com


Monday, November 7, 2016

Take Up The Cause


"Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow."
- Isaiah 1:17



To find out more:

Friday, November 4, 2016

Happy 12th Birthday, Cava!


Twelve years ago today one of my personal heroes was born. While I was not present for his birth or for his first eight birthdays, he is no less my son than the boy who was born to us. When we adopted Cava, I had no idea of how profound an impact he would have on my life and that of our family. Sure, from the moment we first met him there was no doubt in our minds and hearts that there was something special about this boy with the big smile and even bigger hugs, but we did not grasp how much so. As I have watched this amazing child develop in the, almost, four years since he arrived in America, what has struck me is that he is how truly brave a kid he is.

I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to, at only eight years old, choose to start a new life with a new family in a foreign country where everything from the language to the rules to the sights and sounds and smells are unfamiliar. I cannot begin to comprehend all of the things he has overcome in the eight years before we ever met him. I cannot grasp all of the hurts and wounds he has suffered through no fault of his own and yet, to do so while still retaining a compassionate and loving heart. He has a real sense of fairness and will stand up for other kids if they are left out or made fun of. 

Cava's bravery and his deep drive to better himself has caused him to strive and achieve goals that I never imagined possible in so short a time: going from being unable to make it a week of school without getting suspended to making the honor roll for all of last school year.  Or to be elected to student council. Or decide to play soccer. One of the things that I loved most was when, before one of the soccer games, he went off to play with some of his teammates (not an easy thing for him to do since he is still wary of playing with other boys). When I see him trying and putting himself out there for possible success or failure (and being able to now handle the latter with grace and kindness), I want to be more like him. 

In so many ways, Cava and I are very similar. As a child, I was short, skinny and shy (all of which made me a target for being bullied). At times, I was and still am very solitary. Too often I have allowed fear to control what I did or didn't do in life, but as I watch Cava navigate the world with our love and affirmation, he makes me want to put myself out there more, to take more risks, to be more like him. It's because of his bravery that I have opened myself up, let down my guard more, and allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to share parts of my life to others (such as writing about my struggles with depression). Because of my own pains and loneliness, I not only have empathy but understanding of Cava and he has helped to make me a better parent. I have had to rethink parenting and how my own actions and reactions can affect his (or Benjamin's). He is teaching me patience and gentleness always have the greater impact. 

Cava has made me see the world with new and fresh eyes, with an appreciation for what is simple and meaningful. I cannot see a bird without thinking of him (and the same is true for a good many other people). 

People who know Cava love Cava. You cannot help but love his enthusiasm and his joy. He greets those he knows with that big smile and even bigger voice (The boy can be loud).  I have never seen people react to a child the way they have to him. There is something so special in Cava that he draws you in. I cannot go anywhere without someone wanting to talk to me about him. 

Those who have seen the progress he has made in such a short time are astounded by it. We were just at the library this week and the children's section librarians all remarked on what a remarkable kid Cava is and how they love to talk to him and listen to him talk, especially about his love of reading (something else we have in common). 

He has made my life and my family's life so much richer. It is as if he has always been one of us. We cannot imagine our family without him in it. Not a day passes that I don't thank God that He was so loving to us to allow us to be a part of this boy's life. 

Cava has come through so much and I know there is so much more that he has to go through, particularly in regards to coming to terms with his past, but I would go through the depths of hell for my son. 

Ever since he saw the movie Aladdin, he likes to ask me what would I wish for if I could only have one wish. Without missing a beat, I reply, "That you had always been with us." He grins and says, "Oh yeah, me, too." Of course, he also adds, "And for Legos." He loves to hear me say that answer because it reminds him that he's deeply loved and wanted now. Just like he also wants to hear me tell the story of the treasure chest (Treasure Chest) because it's the story of how he is of great value and worth to our family. I like, as he gets out of my car to go to school each morning, how he turns and smiles at me whenever I call out, "Have a great day, treasure." But he is. I cannot imagine a greater treasure than the gift that he has been to my family and I.

Whenever I see him, without even thinking, my heart inwardly says the simple prayer of, "Thank you."

Happy twelfth birthday to my hero, Cava.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Treasure Chest


How many of us fail to grasp our own self-worth?  Too often we are shaped less by who we really are and more by who others perceive us to be. We allowe their criticisms and comments begin to define us from an early age. The German poet Goethe once wrote, "If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he out to be and could be." This is sage advice that I try to remember in my parenting and in my interaction with others.  Too many of us hear negatvie things about who we are when we are young and that shapes and defines so much of how we perceive ourselves. This is especially true of children who have grown up in abusive homes or situations. 

Oftentimes, it can be hard for Cava to accept love and that he is of value and great worth.  His identity and self-image has been shaped by hearing only negative things about himself. Those cold, harsh words reverberate in his soul and those voices echo in his mind whenever he struggles, so much so that he becomes plagued with self-doubt. As his Papa, I try to help him see who he really is: an amazing kid who has so much to offer the world.  Knowing that he has a hard time understanding the abstract, I gave him this image.

Once upon a time, there was a treasure chest in the middle of a village. People passed by this chest, but thought nothing of it; after all, it looked neglected and forgotten. Because the chest was unprotected from the sun and the rain, the chest did not appear special or of any worth. Weeds grew up around this chest. Then, one day, a family came to the village. They noticed the chest and inquired about it from the people of the village. Nobody who they asked gave the chest much thought. "Can we have it?" the family asked. "What do we care," the villagers replied, "it's just an old beaten chest."  So the family picked up the chest and took it back to where they lived. Once inside their own home, they slowly began to pry the chest open and when they did, they found it filled with treasure. Gold and jewels and riches like they had never seen before. They could not believe that the villagers never thought to open it themselves. Oh how their lives were changed by that treasure they found.

Cava loved the story and he talked about what he'd do if he found treasure (buy books, Legos, a bird). Then I revealed to him, "You are like that treasure chest. Nobody had noticed what was inside of you before. They didn't take the time to even see. But we adopted you and we began to see what an amazing, awesome and special kid you were. We saw that you had so many wonderful things inside of you: your intelligence and your kind heart. Each day that we spend with you, we see something new and valuable about you. There is such great worth and even you did not see it before. I cannot wait until you begin to grasp what a treasure you are. In all the history of the world there has never been and never will be another you. God created you uniquely you. He made you special and others now see that as well - at your school, at church." He smiled his big, warm Cava smile. That, too, is treasure.

How many of us need someone to tell us that we, too, are great treasures? That we have value and worth? How different would the world be if more people heard that? To know that they mattered. That they were seen and not forgotten? 

Just think of all the unopened treasure chests there are in this world. Maybe we should each take the time to notice.


Monday, October 3, 2016

Baptism, Armor, & A Papa's Blessing


Before the start of his ministry, Jesus went to the River Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. As he was coming out of the water, the Spirit of God came down like a dove and a voice from heaven spoke, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased." Before Jesus could start his ministry, he needed his Father's blessing. He needed affirmation from God. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke this baptism and God's blessing of His Son is followed by the Spirit leading Christ into the wilderness. The Greek word for "led" is more correctly translated as "impel," which has much more force behind it. Jesus is impelled by the Spirit to the wilderness where he will fast for forty days. During those forty days, he will be tempted daily by Satan, though we are only told specifically of three. Why did God need to bless and affirm His Son's identity? Because that would be the very thing that Satan would come to question in his temptations of Christ. "If you are the Son of God," he always begins. But because Jesus had His Father's affirmation, He understood who He was in God and that is where His identity lay.

How many sons and daughters never received such a blessing from their own fathers?  How many became lost in identity because they did not understand whose they were or that their father blessed their identity?

When Benjamin was born, the first thing I did upon holding him was to whisper a prayer of blessing in his ear over his life. Then, each person who came to visit us in the hospital or when we first got home, before I ever handed Benjamin to them, I asked them to do the same. This is a Middle Eastern custom I had read about that I wanted for my own son. I wanted everyone who came in contact with him to bless him.

A father blessing their son is seen throughout the Old Testament, but when God does so for His only Son then how can I not do likewise with my own sons? Is this not a model I should follow?

Too many fathers don't. Their children grow up without hearing those words they so desperately crave, "I'm proud of you." I cannot even count the number of times Benjamin has heard this over his sixteen years or Cava now has since we adopted him almost four years ago.

Another image from scripture that comes to my mind when I think of this, is when David is told to go and take food for his brothers, who are fighting in Saul's army. It's a humbling task for David, who probably longed to be in battle himself and, during the long, boring hours spent in the field with sheep, probably imagined himself a soldier in battle. Yet he is an errand boy taking his brothers their meal. Yet when he gets to the Israelite camp, he finds his brothers, all of the other troops, and even the King hiding from the taunts of the Philistine giant, Goliath.

What happens when David offers to fight Goliath?

Saul tried to put David in his own armor.

Though Saul is not David's father, I could not help but get a picture of so many parents, including myself sometimes, when we try to mold our children into who we think they should be instead of who God is wanting them to become. We cannot put our children in our armor (or our ideas of who we think they should become or what they should do).  One of the hardest prayers I have ever prayed was in giving my sons completely to God: for His plan for their life.

As their Papa, it is my job to guide and instruct, but it's also to affirm who they are becoming. This is especially true of Benjamin, who will be going off to college in two years. I tell him how proud I am, not just of his accomplishments, but, more importantly of who he's becoming in terms of his character and his walk with God.

When I affirm who he is and who he's becoming then what I am doing is putting his future into the light of God's perspective. "Who you are and what you do," I remind him, "should all be for the glory of God." It is helping him to see that success is not to be viewed through the lens of our culture. True success is not the amount of stuff he has or money he makes, but the amount he loves and gives himself to others in order that they might see the love of Jesus through him. I am preparing him for when he leaves us so that he has a better sense of who he is in Christ. Blessing and affirming him is rooting him in where his strength will come from when he faces trials and tests and failures.  Just as Satan came to Jesus in the wilderness, he will come to Benjamin when he is out of our home. When he hears that sly whisper of suggestion, I want him to know that he is not who the world says he is, but who God says he is; redeemed through the blood of His Son, of great value and worth, precious and righteous.

Also, when I bless them it shows that I know who they are and about their dreams, goals and desires. I see their uniqueness in the way God created them differently from myself. I see their strengths and their weaknesses. I see their gifts and their talents. I see them as individuals. By affirming them, I am letting them know that I notice, I understand and that I bless their identities in Christ. I do this for my sons and would do the same if I had daughters.

I pray this blessing over Benjamin.

I will pray his own blessing over Cava.

They will not be the same prayers because they are not the same kids.

How much time I have with them on this earth, I cannot say. But in that time, I want them to know that their Papa loves them, is proud of them and blesses the men they will become.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A New Direction



After investing so much of myself into Snapshots From Our Journey for the last four and a half years, I have found myself at a crossroads. What originally started as an adoption blog has undergone a metamorphosis and covered a wide variety of subjects all rooted in a biblical perspective: social justice, Black Lives Matter, the refugee crisis, and this current political election. At times, it has been isolating and exhausting. I know that the blog lost readers in this shift, perhaps feeling betrayed that I had changed the focus.

As I have previously written, I realized that I could not keep writing about Cava, his struggles and his life because it was his story, not mine, to tell. For me to continue to do so now would be unfair and voyeuristic. He deserves his privacy.

Will Snapshots From Our Journey continue?

Possibly.

I may, from time to time, return to post stories about the life of our family.

However, I am grateful to all of you who have embraced and loved our family, even when we have never actually met. It's been surreal to go somewhere and be recognized for what I thought would only be read by family and a few friends. It has been an amazing journey.

It has been overwhelming to have so many follow our day to day lives ever since we started the adoption process. We have appreciated your prayers and kind words.

Do I think I will lose readers?

Probably.

But for now, I am finding myself being moved in a new direction. What does God have in store for me? I cannot answer, but I have begun a new blog entitled Begin With Wonder that will embrace the Mystery and the question.

As Saint Emily (Dickinson) wrote:

The Lassitudes of Contemplation
Beget a force
They are the spirit's still vacation
That him refresh -
The Dreams consolidate in action -
What mettle fair.

I am at a new threshold and, for those who would like to come along for that new journey as well, here is the link to the new blog:





Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Five Great Films Of Faith


For as long as I can remember, I have loved going to the movies. When I was a child, one of my favorite places to eat in Charlotte was a pizza parlor that showed silent films by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Along with Disney films, I also watched classic films movies my parents loved, so I got exposed to lots of musicals (Singing in the Rain, Sound of Music), comedies that ranged from slapstick to screwball to romantic, as well as great dramas (Casablanca, 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird). Some of their favorite movies became some of mine and, as I got older, I developed my own favorites and began to embrace foreign cinema. 

One category that I have struggled with the most are films listed as "Christian." Typically, these are heavy-handed tracts that bludgeon the audience (predominantly those who already believe what is being espoused on-screen) and I cringe just watching them. They always make me ask, "If I weren't a Christian, would I watch this?" The answer is typically a resounding, "NO!" These movies are too simplified, cut and dry, and offer no real struggle or complexities to what it means to have faith and, especially, to have that faith tested.

Once I went to film school, I came across these films that are both great cinema as well as deeply nuanced and complicated stories with strongly developed characters, plot and are amazing to look at. 


My first choice comes from a director who struggles with God in all of his films. Born the son of a strict, cold and authoritarian minister, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman wrestled with what he saw as the silence of God. While he has many great movies to choose from, I picked The Virgin Spring (from 1960).  Based on a thirteenth century folk song and set in medieval Sweden, this is the tale of a young girl who is raped and murdered. Her father, played by the amazing Max Von Sydow, decides he is going to take revenge on those who've done this to his daughter. While this is not an easy film to watch, it deals with the complex issues of justice, morality, the nature of evil, questioning of religious faith, and, ultimately, redemption. Bergman once said, "No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight of the soul." One experiences the truth of that statement watching this great work of cinema. 


The director Ingmar Bergman once said that his discovery of the films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky were like "a miracle." He considered Tarkovsky the greatest filmmaker because he thought Tarkovsky "invented a new language . . . as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." High praise from a man who was lauded as a genius of cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky was the son of the poet Arseny Tarkovsky.  Unlike most directors today, Tarkovsky saw cinema as a spiritual act, much like prayer. "Modern mass culture, aimed at the 'consumer,' the civilization of prosthetics," he wrote in his meditation on film and faith entitled Sculpting in Time, "is crippling people's souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being."

All of Tarkovsky's films strives to portray the spiritual nature in a poetic manner in order to reveal the truth he has seen "even if not everyone finds that truth acceptable." Each one is his attempt to express the Infinite. "Substitution," he said is necessary because, "the infinite cannot made made into matter, but it is possible to create an illusion of the infinite: the image."


Like with Bergman, it is difficult narrowing down Tarkovsky's movies to just one, but after much debating, I settled on his 1966 masterpiece Andrei Rublev. It is a biographical film about the life of 15th century icon-painter Andrei Rublev. This is set during a violent and turbulent part of Russian history and its themes are artistic freedom, as well as religious and political identity (all of this drew the ire of the socialistic and atheistic leaders of the Soviet Union of that time who saw it as a condemnation of their own regime). 


Regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Andrei Rublev places us in this world amidst the muck and chaos that resembles the paintings of Brueghel. Not interested in cause and effect, Tarkovsky is far more concerned about asking questions about the artist in regards to society and his religious beliefs, while not seeking to answer the questions he's asked. "In cinema, it is not necessary to explain, but to act upon the viewer's feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought," he said.  Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction. Creation with the fallenness of man. With the films final moments, we see that creation wills out in a grand flourish of color as we see Rublev's paintings for the very first time. 


My third choice is a more more accessible film than the first two. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for 1987, Babette's Feast. Based on story by Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa), this movie tells the story of two elderly and pious sisters Martine and Phillipa. Their father, a pastor, founded an austere sect that his daughters preside over once he died. The sect is dwindling as the congregation gets older and does not draw any new converts. We are shown the sisters' pasts and the choices they made to stay with their father in their strict faith. Then a French refugee, Babette, shows up on their doorstep with an offer to work for them without pay. 


What unfolds as Babette enters their lives and, over the years, gaining their trust and respect. Then, one day, Babette wins the French lottery of $10,000 francs. She uses that money to prepare a feast for the sisters and people from their past. This sumptuous, exotic feast takes on spiritual meaning, almost like a Eucharist, as those gathered at the table begin to find redemption and forgiveness as they come to terms with their pasts and their choices. After the meal, a tearful Martin tells Babette, "Now you will be poor the rest of your life." Babette replies, "An artist is never poor!" Philippa says, "In paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be."


My fourth choice is a series of films by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski based on the Ten Commandments, entitled Dekalog. These short films were what drew attention to Kieslowski and led to him becoming one of the world's premiere filmmakers (going on to make The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours series BlueWhite and Red based on the colors and the three political ideals of France: liberty, equality and fraternity). At the time of his death, he was also working on films about both heaven and hell.  When asked about the crisis facing Western Civilization, Krzysztof Kieslowski said, "We are clearly going through a cultural crisis at the moment. It's a phase where we are trying to distinguish values of life. People are looking for a solution and perhaps they will find it. But the radicality of the search will change their view of life."


I had come to Kieslowski's work through the dreamlike film The Double Life of Veronique. Having never seen anything like it, I became a huge fan of his work, so much so that when I found out they were showing Dekalog at a film festival in Washington, DC, Danelle and I drove there to see them. I was amazed by the originality and depth he brought to the subject. Dekalog is not a film about rules, offering only mere illustrations of those who do or don't live by them, but stories that involve real people caught up in the complexities of their daily problems. Throughout the films is a single male figure. He's a young man who looks sadly on at what is taking place around him. He never speaks a word, but there is a sadness to him. Is this Christ with his pure, wounded gaze looking at the weakness and failures of humanity? 


These are not philosophical abstractions but concrete stories with real emotions. Stanley Kubrick (director of such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey) said, after seeing Dekalog, that Kieslowski "has the very rare ability to dramatize (his) ideas rather than just talking about them." How many of today's "Christian" movies can that be said of? These are films that will leave the viewer filled with questions and wanting to discuss them. 


Along with Bergman, Tarkovsky and Kieslowski this last choice is by another of my favorite filmmakers: Terrence Malick. I have loved his films from Badlands to Tree of Life (was not able to embrace his To The Wonder). All of his works have a spiritual element to them and references to biblical stories. With Malick, I was torn between three films (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life). The last one I have already blogged about Awe & Meditation On The Tree Of Life, so I went with Days of Heaven. Malick is an artist and the frames of his films are like master paintings. Throughout this film, I couldn't help but think of the work of Andrew Wyeth. The film is visually gorgeous to look at.


The story is almost Old Testament in its telling. Set in 1916, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are lovers. After knocking down and accidentally killing his boss, they flee to Texas where they pretend to be siblings to prevent gossip. When they are hired on by a shy and wealthy farmer (played by Sam Shepard), he begins to fall in love with Abby. Discovering that the farmer is dying, Bill encourages Abby to marry him so that they can inherit his money after he dies. What Bill does not expect is that Abby will fall in love with this farmer. As the film unfolds, complete with plagues like locust and fire, so too does its story of ambition and love. This melodrama works because Malick is more meditative about his subjects and fills them with religious imagery. His contemplative style makes his films transcendent in its being elliptical and evocative. He does not feed the audience the answers but makes them work to understand the connections and depth of what's unfolding onscreen. There is a conscious deliberation to his films, rooted in his faith and his love of philosophy. His movies deal with the fundamental questions of man's existence (creation, the fall of man, the existence of good and evil - within the same person, light and darkness, human and divine love, the eternal and the natural world). 


As with the other great directors I've mentioned, Terrence Malick is not interested in easy answers but in the complicated messiness that we all struggle through in our faith to find meaning in the suffering and the joy, the heartbreak and the hope. 


All of these films portray faith as something that is tested and tried. They show the reality of the wrestling with life and with God. Each director portrays that, no matter how hard the struggle is, in the end there is more, there is hope, there is something far greater than ourselves. Their artistry opens us to awe and wonder and the daringness to ponder. Like any great art, they don't offer us the answers but, instead, help us to ask better questions.


These are my five choices for great films about faith, what are yours? Comment or e-mail me. I would love to hear your thoughts on my choices and your own.

Other recommendations:


The Mission
"If might is right, then love has no place in the world," Father Gabriel tells
Rodrigo, "It may be so,  it may be so.  But I don't have the strength to live
in a world like that."


Chariots of Fire
"I believe God made me for a purpose," Eric Liddell says to his sister,
"but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure."


Diary of a Country Priest


Tender Mercies