Saturday, October 31, 2015

Harry Potter, Halloween, & Adoption


This was the first year that Cava did not want to go as a super hero for Halloween.  And who had the power to vanquish the likes of Superman?


Harry Potter!  


Since he started school, Cava wanted to read the book series. At first he tried on his own, but found it too difficult and not on his reading level, so I would let him read it to me.  He struggled but I helped him.  Then he would have to answer questions for school about his reading.  One of the questions was, "If you could ask the author anything about the book, what would you ask?"

I was surprised by what Cava would ask, "Why would you make Harry an orphan?"

Most children his age would ask her about magic or Hogwarts or about the wonderous creatures, but not Cava.  So I asked him why he would ask J. K. Rowling this question.  He replied, "Because it's so hard being an orphan, I would never make anyone one." Neither would I, Cava, neither would I.  (On a sidenote, Rowling herself penned a piece for The Guardian entitled: Isn't It Time We Left Orphanages To Fairy Tales?)


Since he was having a hard time reading the books, Danelle and I began taking turns reading a chapter a night to him.  He enjoyed when I would do different voices for each of the characters to help bring the story to life.  I loved seeing him get caught up in the marvelously, imaginative world that J. K. Rowling created. As magical as reading The Chronicles of Narnia was for me as a child, it has become even more magical for me to read that series, as well as the Harry Potter one to my sons.  I love watching them want to know what was going to happen next.


Once October rolled around, Cava began to look in the stores for what he wanted to be for Halloween.  For awhile, another orphan, Superman was the frontrunner. When I asked Cava why he wanted to be Harry Potter for Halloween, he replied, "Because we're both orphans and we both overcome obstacles."  He couldn't have been more correct.  He smiled before adding, "And he has a bird of prey for a pet and I want one."


It's interesting to read the Harry Potter books with Cava because it brings a new, deeper level to the story as Harry struggles with many of the issues that adoptive children face: anger, loneliness, struggles with identity and self-worth, and longing to know more about his parents (something that has begun to pop up with Cava recently) and to have some connection to them, and wrestling, and a longing for a family and to be truly loved.  


I can't help but wonder how much of Cava tries to understand his own narrative as we read about Harry's. We talk about how Harry deals with the situtations in his life and we let Cava talk about whatever he wants to discuss: about the story, his own past, about his own issues, about school, whatever.  It's amazing how this series is allowing us the opportunity to understand more about this little boy that we love so much and who astounds us every day with who he's becoming.  While both will always have the ache of loss in their lives, like Harry, Cava has worked so hard and come so far to have a meaningful life.  It truly is magical.


To go to Lumos, mentioned in the article, go to; http://www.wearelumos.org/ 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Beginning & Ending



BEGIN WITH PRAYER. END WITH ACTION.


"Rich people who see a brother or sister in need, yet close their hearts 
against them, cannot claim that they love God."
1 John 3:17


"Learn to do right. See that justice is done - help those who are oppressed, 
give orphans their rights, and defend widows."
- Isaiah 1:17


"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. ..."
- James 2:14-26


"The most honored parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control.  The most important parts are the least presentable parts. That's the mystery of the Church.  As a people called out of oppression to freedom, we must recognize that it is the weakest among us - the elderly, the small children, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the hungry and sick - who form the real center.  Paul says,  "It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity"  (1 Corinthians 12:23).

The Church as the people of God can truly embody the living Christ among us only when the poor remain its most treasured part.  Care for the poor, therefore, is much more than Christian charity.  It is the essence of being the body of Christ."


- Henri Nouwen

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Feeding My Insecurities On Designer Birthday Cake


While waiting in the lobby of Cava's speech therapist's office, I flipped through a local parenting magazine.  I saw ads for renting out a ferris wheel, merry-go-round, giant inflatables, expensive designer cakes, catereing companies specifically for children's birthday parties, and a whole host of activities to keep children entertained, occupied, and everything but bored.  Is it any wonder our kids have to be entertained at all times?

I could not imagine my parents forking out the dough it takes to have one of these modern children's birthday parties.  I know I wouldn't - even if I had the money. We are getting ready for Cava's birthday party in a couple of weeks, so my wife and I have been looking at our options and weighing costs, pros and cons

Gone are the days of pin the tale on the donkey and homemade cake.  Gone are Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines and even Carvel Cakes, to be replaced by cakes that can cost $80 and up.

In a survey, 7 out of 10 parents said that they spend $300 or more on their child's birthday party (Our family tends to come in around $200).  1 in 7 said they spend $1,000 or more.  There are those who even spend $10,000 or more.  And the younger the child, the more they spend.

A kid's party planner said that the average at-home children's party has a budget of $2,000.  It's as if parents want to be like the character John Hammond in Jurassic Park braggingly telling everyone, "I spared no expense."

Parents are spending the kind of money that would be college tuition or even the cost of adopting a child. An example being one family that recently spent $32,000 on their 6 year old daughter's fairy tale birthday to make it "perfect."

And what did the child think?

She threw a tantrum that the bird on the eight-tiered cake was purple and not blue.


But why are the parents doing this?

When asked, many parents claim that they do so because they want their child's day to be "special" and "unique."  It is a striving to make their child's birthday better and different from other kid's parties.  Susannah Guthrie wrote about this, "Money is spent in an effort to satiate a growing need for differentiation."  It's not enough to have someone dressed as a super hero or Disney princess show up. Now one has to rent exotic animals, bands, a portable disco with DJ, a portable arcade, or even an entire amusement park.  And it's not just celebrities doing these over-the-top birthdays, either.  The upper middle class is fueling an industry that didn't even exist when my oldest son was younger.

So what does this teach our kids?

That the world revolves around them.

It creates kids who are unsatisfied, demanding, ill-disciplined, and having unrealistic expectations about what is to come.  They want what they want when they want it - and the scary thing is that their parents are catering to them.  Yet one cannot blame the child.  As Roald Dahl once said, "Some children are spoiled and it is not their fault.  It is their parents."


These kids will not only grow up with unrealistic expectations but when the real world doesn't meet up to their Disney World dream one, they are going to complain, "That's not fair!" (Back when I used to interview potential students for college, every one of them, without fail, said that they would make at least $60,000 coming straight out of school).

And what will the response of those around them, such as their bosses, be?



It also encourages consumerism in these kids. They will learn that to be happy one has to acquire more stuff or that to love someone you must give them gifts. All this does is breed more discontentment that feeds into a culture that tells them they must buy bigger, newer, better stuff to be loved, accepted, or attractive.    

The question then remains: why do parents do this? What causes them to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a kid's birthday party. Most would say they do it out of love for their children, but love should be extravagant not the amount we spend on them and, too often, people have equated the two as the same thing. 

It's no longer just children who come to the birthday parties, but also their parents who accompany them.  Do we feel we have to perform to a certain level to be considered a good and loving parent or for these other parents to be impressed by how lavish a party we can throw?   

What it comes down to is insecurity in the parents.  They feel the need to exhibit to excess in a desire for the approval of not only their children, but those around them.  

Too many people believe: 


But is that true?

Studies have shown that, compared to our grandparents, we spend more and actually enjoy less.  The more we spend, the more we buy, and the more discontent we are.  In the magazine American Psychologist, Dr. David G. Meyes (who also wrote a book entitled American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty) stated, "Compared with their grandparents, today's young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology.Our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being."  

Why?

We spend so much time getting and spending, including for birthday parties, that it takes our focus from the very things that can nurture happiness and contentment: such as relationships with family and friends, and our relationship with God. Is it any wonder then that the Bible warns us to "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have. . ." (Hebrews 13:5).  That's a slogan you won't hear in any new car ad.  Luke 12:15 also tells us to "Take care and be on your guard against covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15).  This is not what Madison Avenue wants people to believe.  Instead, we are innundated with advertisements that are meant to make us feel insecure, envious, lustful, and craving whatever they are selling in the hopes that it will make us happier, sexier, and important.  We are tying our self-worth to our monetary worth and our belongings.  We are no longer defined by our character but by our consumerism.

In his book The High Price of Materialim, Dr. Tim Kasser found that "when people organize their lives around extrinsic goals such as product acquisition, they report greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods, and more psychological problems." Kasser distinguishes "extrinsic goals" as that "which tend to focus on possessions, image, status and receiving rewards and praise" from "intrinsic ones" that "aim at outcomes like personal growth and community connection and are satisfying in and of themselves."  

We have replaced community with consumerism.  This has caused us to focus on what we lack instead of what we have to offer.  Discontentment gnaws away at peace of mind and we attempt to fill that with something we can buy.  Our moods become tied to our goods.  We are feeding our insecurities with designer birthday cakes.  But those goes contrary to what God wants for us.  As Paul wrote in Philippians, "Not that I speak from want for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am."  This goes contrary to our society that tells us we are what we own.  They have taken impersonal consumerism and made it not only extremely personal, but defining in a way that our grandparents would be horrified by.

Fear and insecurity fuel our consumerism, including how much we spend on our kid's parties.  

The sad thing is, studies have shown that the more materialistic we are as parents, the less nurturing we are to our children.  We aren't raising compassionate children, but tiny consumers who believe that their every wish and desire should be satisfied.  In her book The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard writes, "Our primary identity has become that of being consumers - not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but consumers.  We shop and shop and shop."  


Our consumerism is fueling perpetual dissatisfaction.  We have everything and are grateful for nothing and we are teaching this to our children.  It effects their own self-image as they falsely believe they have to live up to images that are perpetuated by media and the entertainment industry.  Consumerism breeds self-hatred in an attempt to measure up to standards that no one can measure up to (not the super models, athletes, actors, singers, etcetera).  

Isn't it time we stop, not just for our own well-being and the well-being of our children, but for others?

Francis Chan said, "The concept of downsizing so that others might upgrade is biblical, beautiful and nearly unheard of.  We either close the gap or we don't take the words of the Bible seriously."

Our consumerism is heretical.  If you don't believe we are responsible for the poor, the downtrodden, the orphan, those in slavery and human trafficking then we have not really read the Scriptures because God does not ask us to take care of them, He demands it.  Once we let go of our wants, we will begin to see how freeing life was meant to be.  

Instead of being possessed by our possessions, we will be filled with a sense of gratitude and contentment. We can give our children so much more than expensive birthday parties: we can show them that the greatest gains we can have are not related to what we buy but by what we give to others so that we move from consumerism to compassion.  We need to stop comparing ourselves to others, competing with others, and start loving others more than we do ourselves.  It's not about how lavish the party is, but how lavish the love we give is, not only to our children, but to our community and those around us.  Our prison is our preoccupation with our possession, but, as believers, we know that Jesus has broken us from our prisons and our chains.  

Mother Teresa once said, "The more you have, the more you are occupied.  The less you have, the more free you are."

We need to walk in that freedom.






Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Psalms: Blueprint of Ecstasy, Agony & Reality


When I tell people that the Psalms is my favorite book in the Bible, I get strange, distrustful looks as if I had told them that I prefer kale to cheesecake.  I don't know if most people don't get the psalms or they approach them with the same dislike that they would poetry, as most complain that poetry is too hard to understand.  What they don't get is that poetry isn't about understanding, it's about feeling.  So, too, are the Psalms. The Psalms express our emotions before God.  Many find that uncomfortable.  But we shouldn't. As believers, we should believe strongly in honest confession (Just read a Psalm like the 38th one can see this, as it is brutally honest but also shows that we are never alone).  Because the Psalms deal with emotions (loneliness, love, delight, fear, grief, and joy) they have an inexhaustable depth to them.

The Psalms deal with reflection, with woundedness, with fears, with doubts, with struggles, and with worship.  They are both poetry and prayer, laments and love songs.  All of them are an honest opening of the heart to God.  Many are uncomfortable with that. As Walter Brueggemann wrote in his book Spirituality of the Psalms, "We have believed that faith does not mean to aknowledge and embrace negativity."  The Psalms burst that wide open.  Many confront us at our weakest, our darkest, our loneliest, our most frightened.  But we need to face this just as much as we do the joy and the success.  Brueggemann also writes, "The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success to the avoidance of pain, hurt, and loss."  The Psalms shows that we cannot be whole, cannot be healed, unless we deal with both.  That's also why the Psalms can give us such comfort when we are in the midst of trials and hurts that cannot be dismissed by offering someone a mere encouraging word or a cheap platitude.

What the Psalms do not do is sugarcoat or gloss over any of reality.  When Christ cries out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he is crying out from the Psalter (Psalm 22 to be exact). It doesn't get any more raw and real than that moment. Was there a greater, more heartwrenching sorrow in all of history?

And the Psalms have been a great source of consolation for those who are in the depths of the pit, who are struggling with depression, who are watching a loved one die, who are seeing their marriage crumble because they give voice to the wrenching of our hearts by our circumstances. The Psalms go beyond the surface to where we are most wounded. During these times, we will find recognition, wisdom, and healing.  Oftentimes, the Psalms give us hope during the heartbreak. It reminds us that, despite our circumstances, God is still in control.

In 1983, on their album War, U2 recorded their version of the fortieth Psalm entitled "40 (How Long)." When asked why he did this, Bono described the Psalms as "honest language with God."  He went on to say, "What's so powerful about the Psalms are, as well as they're being good gospel and songs of praise, they are also the blues. It's very important for Christians to be honest with God, which often, you know, God is much more interested in who you are than who you want to be."

Yes, the Psalms not only portray where life occurs, raw and ragged, but, more importantly they show that even in the depths, one must cry out, even question, but, ultimately, praise God. They show triumph and despair, longing and loss, loneliness and love, gladness and sorrow.  The gamut of human experience is there and God approves, even going so far as to call David, who wrote many of the psalms, a "man after His own heart."  In his book Reflections of the Psalms, C.S. Lewis wrote, "The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance."

How many of us come to the Psalms with that same sense of delight and joy and pure worship that made David dance in exultation of God?

Do we feel the same delight a young child would upon entering Toys R Us?

Just read Psalm 145 and read those words as a song of celebration:

I will exalt you, my God and King,
and praise your name forever and ever.
I will praise you  every day;
yes, I will praise you forever.

This was David's favorite Psalm.  It was a psalm of adoration and praise.  It was the last one he wrote and he dwells on God's goodness, mercy, and compassion.  This one was a call to worship.  

As singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken said, "The Psalms . . . point more personally and intimately than other books in the scripture to who we are and who God is."  That is why they are not only great ways to worship God in song, but also they are great for praying.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength." Bonhoeffer believed that to pray the Psalms was a way to "recover the meaning of prayer." He even calls the Psalms the "prayerbook of the Church."

Eugene Peterson said that the Psalms "get us praying when we don't feel like it, and they train us in prayers that are honest and right." The Psalms give us the words to pray when we cannot find the words. I know there have been times in my own life where the Psalms were the only prayers I could muster as my own words would not come.  During those times, just like David, I could call out, "Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy" (Psalm 86).

Thomas Merton said that the Psalms "enable us to surrender ourselves to God."  As Psalm 37:7 tells us, "Surrender yourself to the Lord, and wait patiently for him"  Surrender in Hebrew means to be delivered up, to be present, so that we can be encompassed by God, like a shield.  When we surrender ourselves to Him, God surrenders Himself and embraces us.  This surrender brings us into deeper intimacy with God.  The Psalms can help usher ourselves into that moment of surrender. Only in our surrender will we know real strength.

I love what Sandra McCracken said, "The Psalms are by nature invitational."  This means that they draw us in. They invite us. And in their invitation, they pierce our hearts with their honesty and lift our souls by their desire to praise an infinitely loving God.

It is the one book of the Bible that I read a chapter of every day and, when I reach the last one, I go back and start the book over again.  They reach a place in me that no other in scripture does.  As Merton stated so rightly,  that when we realize just who God is and how much He loves us, " . . . the only possible reaction is a cry of half-articulate exultation that bursts from the depths of our being in amazement at the tremendous, inexplicable goodness of God to men. The Psalms are made up of such cries . . ."

Is it any wonder then that I love and return to this book again and again with such fervent passion?

Sandra McCracken's "My Soul Finds Rest" based on Psalms 62-63:


Audrey Assad's "I Shall Not Want" based on the 23rd Psalm:





Friday, October 23, 2015

Mindy Smith On Being Adopted


When asked about being adopted as a child by a pastor and his wife, singer / songwriter Mindy Smith said:

It’s a blessing. I feel really strongly that I was put in the home I needed to be in to get where I am at today. My family is awesome and I think adoption is not something that should be as difficult as it is. I think there are children out there that people are missing out on, great people and great kids. I think it is so important to sort of exercise awareness and try to find a way to get those little kids their own families. I mean I am very fortunate. I was one of the lucky ones but there are so many people that don’t have that.


To learn more about Mindy and her music, go to her official website can be found at:

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Purposefully Unplugged



When our children look back and think about us, will they be able to picture us without a smart phone in our hands?

This question haunts me.

I remember last October, when our family went to Disney World.  It amazed me how many people still spent more of their time connected to their smartphones than their family or the amusement park itself. Take a photo. Post it. How many likes does a photo of us in front of Cinderella's Castle get us?  #Happiestplaceon earth.

In a study done by McCann Worldgroup, they surveyed over 7,000 people between the ages of 16 to 30, and 53% of them said they would rather give up their sense of smell than their technology. They would be more willing to be unable to smell a flower or the scent of freshly baked bread or a newly mowed lawn or a spring rain for technology.  A loss of smell would also impact the taste of their food.  But even so, they would rather have their cell phones.

One in five said they would rather go shoeless than phoneless.

75% of all teenagers and 58% of 12 year olds now have cell phones. More than half send 50 or more texts a day. Most say it is their preferred way of communication.

Another study showed that over half of the people interviewed said they get anxious if they couldn't use their cell phones.


And don't think that I believe this is limited to teenagers and young adults, as I know far too many adults who are just as bad, if not worse about being on their cell phones.

How many of us would willingly give up technology for a week?  How about a month?  Ninety days?

Most would go through serious withdrawal without their smart phones, Internet, tablets, and social media.

46% of adults said they could not give up their Internet.  44% said they would be unable to give up their cell phones.

This should come as no surprise since 66% said they sleep with their smart phones next to them.

28% said they would rather go without seeing their significant other for a week than give up their smart phones for the same amount of time.

Why?

When did we become gluttonous for technology to the degree that we would rather have our tablets, our smart phones, our Internet than one of our natural senses, our spouses, and real connection with others?

In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson writes, "We care more for our possessions with which we hope to make our way in the world than with our thoughts and dreams which tell us who we are in the world."

Our products determine our person. We are defined by our consumerism.  It's all instant.  All now.  The newest latest.  While waiting in line for the newest smartphone, we are already hearing how it will be osolete when the next one comes out in a few months.  We are literally chasing after things that are futile and, unlike the Bible, are no longer able to see things in terms of generations, but only in terms of momentary flashes. The Internet tells us that we not only have to be more, but to have more to measure up.


We live in a culture that seeks distraction and will create more and more ways to achieve this.  All of us have become, like Kurt Cobain sang in "Smells Like Teen Spirit": Here we are now, entertain us!

This is less a request and more of a demand.  And our culture thrives on this demand.  The biggest sin in our culture is boredom.

But how much of this outer noise and distraction merely mirrors our own inner noise and chaos? How much of it is fueled by all of this high-speed, technological stimuli?

I think most Christians would be far more willing to fast from food than they would be their gadgets and their technology.  Many would wonder, "Do I exist if I don't get enough likes?" or "repins" or "followers" or "retweets" and so on.  In this modern age, would Jesus have told the rich young ruler to give up his technology?  How would we react if He asked them same of us?  Would we turn away, sadly?  Jesus tells us to "deny ourselves" but we gloss over that to fit the denying into something we are willing to give up, or using specific times, such as Lint, to give things up momentarily.  Yet how does all this time online affect our relationship with a God who tells us, "Be still?"  Can we?  Or do our minds buzz like beehives with anxiety of what is going on in the online world without us. Instead of, "I think, therefore I am," we are now, "I text, therefore I am." #Hashtag that.

"Neuroscience studies are now showing that the neural pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly so that our capacity for sustained attention is decreasing," Richard J. Foster wrote in his book Sanctuary for the Soul.  What do we lose when we lose that?

Simone Weil wrote, "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity."  When we pay attention to someone or something, we are focusing solely on that and not a million other distractions.  We are letting that person know how important they are to us.  It is real connection, not getting a "like."

When we become so connected into the cyber world, we lose connection to the natural world.  I know I can be guilty of this.  How many times am I too busy taking photographs of what I "see" to post on social media than I am being in the moment and solely enjoying that moment for no other reason than it is the glorious creation of our Creator.  I know I am too guilty, so much so my kids ask, "Are you going to post this on Facebook?" or "write about it on your blog?"

And what do our kids lose when the world they know best is the one from Minecraft?  How many of our kids can recognize these animals over their real world counterparts?


I work for a toy company.  Years ago, it used to be that you could keep a child in toys until the age of ten. Now that is no longer the case as younger and younger children clamor for technology of their own. By giving it to them, how are we, as their parents, damaging not only their imaginations but also their ability to not always be connected in ways that are not real?


How many kids today can't even go on a short drive without their iPods, iPads, tablets, smart phones, or watching a DVD on a small screen in the minivan?


Excess. 

We live in technological excess.  

And this carries over into all areas of our life: family, work, even our worship is effected.  In a survey done by Tyndale University College and Seminary, they found that 35% of church leaders believe that their congregations are too focused on their technology.  We have become more fascinated by the Internet than we are worshipful of the ineffable.  

If C.S. Lewis were alive today, I think he would have written a book entitled The Screwtape Texts. Technology has made it harder for us to focus, even on almighty God because we have shorter attention spans, demand instant gratification, and do not take the time to truly study scripture or spend time in prayer and meditation.  

The writer Kate Harris said that the two biggest hinderances to our faith are fear and fantasy because they both exist in the "What if?" that removes us from reality.  How true this is in relations to our obsession with our technology.

This was certainly shown when women admitted to feeling inferior as wives and mothers because of Pinterest.  They were comparing themselves to the fantasy of what others' homes, meals, crafts, and family life were like in the world of pinning.  

How many of us feel like we don't measure up because of the Internet? 

We can no longer focus on one thing: texting, checking social media, watching TV, tweeting . . . Even at concerts, we can't enjoy the performance for being on our smartphones.  

We no longer just watch television, we binge watch our favorites in a mad-dash to watch either an entire season or entire seasons of programming.  

Yet how much of our focus is on our screens and not our God? Our family?  Our church service? The world around us?  

No longer do we behold our God, behold His creation.  We are losing focus on the things that are eternal and real.  We are building our homes not on the rock but in the invisible empires (to borrow a term from Sara Groves) of the Internet.  Is our technology our servant or our master?  We need to cling less to the finiteness of our technology for the infiniteness of our Father. We no longer have wooden idols but ones that come in nice, sleek packaging with Apples on them.  Like our ancestors, we worship the things that are made by our own hands.

So I have to stop and ask myself:

Can I purposefully unplug?  

Can I seek real experience and real connection without needing to then hurry and write about it or post something on social media?  

Can I "disconnect to reconnect?"  

Can I slow down in this frenetically paced technological world and just be again?  

Ask me. 

In person.  

Let's have a conversation.  

Let's go for a walk.  

Let's spend some time together.  

Let's leave our virtual worlds and meet together in the real one.  

I have a feeling our time together will be more substantial, less stressful, and more real.  











Friday, October 16, 2015

By Way Of The Desert


God led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert. After His son's baptism, God led Jesus into the desert before the start of his ministry. While Jesus was obedient and came out of the desert after forty days, the Israelites weren't and wandered in the desert for forty years.  But in both cases, God led them to the desert just as He often leads us there in our lives.  

The word "desert" is derived from the Latin word "deserere," which means "to leave, forsake."  Not exactly comforting. It makes us feel like we are abandoned like Hagar and Ishmael being sent off into it by Abram and Sara.  A desert is a desolate place where one is open to the hardship of the landscape and the elements. Rocky and barren. Without water. Without shade.  Without protection. Without comfort.  It is nothingness. No one chooses the desert willingly.  We are led there.  But why?

Why would God want us in the desert?  Doesn't He love us?  Why put us in a place of such hardship, of such a feeling of aloneness, of isolation, and abandonment?  Why lead us to somewhere that won't be easy, where we will be tempted just as Christ was?  We know of at least three of the temptations, but the gospel of Luke tells us Jesus was tempted for forty days. 

Henri Nouwen wrote in his book The Way of the Heart, "It is in the nothingness that I have to face . . . a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions . . . The wisdom of the desert is that confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ."  

When Jesus went to the desert, he surrendered totally to the will of his Father. He went to the desert out of obedience.  How many times in our lives do we act out of obedience to what God has called us to do, only to find ourselves in the wilderness?  I know our family has.  We went to Ukraine and adopted an eight-year old boy who had suffered such hardships and trauma in his young life that he was scared and angry and broken.  Adoption can be a real desert for those who undertake it.  It can be a time of difficulty and disillusionment. It is moving into a place of deep unknowing.  I for one, don't like such places.  I like to plan and organize.  I like order.  Adoption, like the desert, is not order.  It is confusing.  As Debbie Blue wrote in Consider the Birds, "We still wander, we doubt, we wonder if it has been foolish to follow God, because we often find ourselves in the desert."    

In the desert, we find our hearts asking for understanding, for comfort, for solace, for peace, and, ultimately, for deliverance.

In the desert, Moses wrote the book of Genesis to show the Israelites just who the God they served was.  In the desert, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

Like the Israelites, we may grumble, complain, doubt, and question.  We may ask, "Where are you God?" or "Why would You make me go through this?"  Like David in the Psalms, we find ourselves asking, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?"

Deserts are bleak.  Deserts are foreboding.  Deserts are intimidating.  Deserts are lonely, harsh, desolate places.  Deserts strip us of our wants and makes us focus solely on what we truly need to survive.  For the person with cancer, they are not praying for that new car.  For those with a loved one addicted to drugs, they don't pray for a bigger house.  No, the desert strips of all that is unnecessary.  We pray for what is essential, what is life-giving.

Simone Weil writes in her book Gravity and Grace, "Love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude."  

Gratitude?

How many of us approach our deserts with gratitude?

I don't.  When we went through the hellish, nightmare that adoption can be, I felt many, many things but gratitude wasn't one of them.  When my mother died of cancer, there wasn't an ounce of gratitude in me.  I know when Cava was in the orphanage system, where he was small and vulnerable and I  now hear some of what he endured there, I don't feel gratitude. 

In The Dark Night of The Soul, St. John of the Cross writes how God draws us into such places, to move us into such deserts, so that we will mature spiritually, so that the things that satisfied us before will no longer do so, and that we will be purified from the distractions.  This is never easy or pleasant.  It is a place where we are broken.  But it is only from brokenness that we can really experience God because we are completely reliant on Him.  He leads us into the desert so that this can happen, so that He alone can provide a way. As Isaiah 43:19 tells us, "Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert."  Just as with Hagar, as she cried out to God and He showed her a well of water.  With the Israelites, God provided water from the hardness of a rock.  That also reminds me of Psalm 81:16 where God tells us that He would satisfy us with "honey from the rock."  That means, from hardships, God can draw sweetness in our lives.  

In the desert, we will experience hunger, thirst, fear, loneliness, and loss. A desert will test us both physically and spiritually, just as it did our Savior.  

During the worst of it, after we had brought Cava home, we felt overwhelmed, gasping for breath, and more tired and dazed than someone in the poppy fields of Oz.  There were days when we could barely get a half-formed prayer from our lips.  We wondered and wandered.  It was a time of barrenness.  We often felt isolated and alone and struggling with what we had gotten ourselves into.  We looked around and saw nothing but horizon, but desert (sandy and rocky and sharp), with dangers, without shelter from the intense heat of day and the intense cold of night, and without civilization.  How fragile and small we are in the desert.  In that smallness, however, we should seek only the greatness of our God, our Creator and loving Father, though we may not feel He is so loving at the time (that is why we go by faith, not feeling).

Many times I felt helpless.  It was then that I realized I couldn't do it on my own.  I could not heal Cava and his hurts, his wounds, and his traumas.  Only God could.  The situation appeared hopeless, but I had to cling to what Romans 8:24-25 said, "For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth why doth he yet hope for?  But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it?" And, in that desert, you hope and wait and trust.  The desert requires an act of faith.  In his essay "God, Science, and Imagination," Wendell Berry wrote, "Faith, at root, is related to 'bide' and 'abide.'  It has certainly the sense of difficult belief - of waiting, of patience, of endurance, of hanging on and holding together."

And boy does it!

There were days where we felt like we were barely hanging on.  It was a time of trial and endurance. Watching my young son wrestle with love and acceptance was heartbreaking.  Watching my mother's body lose its battle with cancer was exhausting.  Watching the darkness that was the life of our host daughter was depleting.  During those times, we stopped chasing the trinkets of trash that this world has to offer and found ourselves living off the harvest of mercy and grace that God offers those who are hurting and are caught in the struggle of the desert's brutal emptiness.  There is no indulgence in the desert.  There is only survival.  

With the world of the desert, we could reach for nothing the world around us had.  We could only reach and cry out to God.  As Second Corinthians 7 says, "And now, isn't it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God?  You're more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible.  Looked at from any angle, you've come out of this with purity of heart" (The Message translation).  It is a distress that drives us to God.  It is a time of surrender.  

The desert is a place of transformation. Yes, Jesus was tempted for forty days, but by the end of it, though he was physically weak, he was "filled with the power of the Spirit" (Luke 4:14).  

Our family has come out of our deserts stronger: not only as a family, but, more importantly, in our closeness and reliance on God.  Though it is a time of hardship, the desert is also a precious gift.





Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What It Means To Be Adopted


Last night I had the opportunity to speak at our county commissioners' meeting, as they were discussing the current county adoption benefit and county wide assistance benefit.  After being asked, I agreed to do so. Despite my dislike for public speaking, I felt I could not be silent on anything that could help children in foster care or internationally be adopted. I wanted to speak out and be a voice for the voiceless.  As I was working on what I planned to say, Cava asked me what I was doing.  When I told him, he asked, "Can I write something?"

We spent around thirty minutes writing what he had to say.  It was entitled "What It Means To Be Adopted."  When we had finished, I asked him, "Can I read what you wrote at the county commissioners' meeting?"

"Sure," he smiled his wonderful Cava smile.  Now the one thing that concerned me most was that everytime I practiced reading aloud what he had written, I got choked up.  It was hard reading his words and not be moved.  I prayed constantly that God would give me the strength to be able to present what Cava had written clearly, without fear, and without breaking down.  Through Him alone, I did.  The power of Cava's words were heard.

Here is what Cava wrote:

When I got adopted, my world got bigger.

Before, in Ukraine, it was just the orphanage.  Nothing else.  When I was there, I was angry and sad and felt all alone.  Nobody told me, "I love you" or that I was "smart" or "good."  If I was scared, nobody told me it was okay.  Nobody hugged me. Nobody cared.  I only thought my life was going to be hard.  I never dreamed about being anything.  I only dreamed of getting out.

Then a family came to meet me.  They looked so happy. I wanted to be happy like them.  I wanted to be in their family.  And they wanted me to be in their family, too.  I have never been so happy as when Mommy came to get me and we left the orphanage for good.  I got to come to America.  I never thought this could happen.  I never dreamed I could be so lucky.

When I got adopted, everything changed for me.

Now I have a family that takes care of me, loves me, and tells me I'm smart and special.  If I'm scared, they tell me it's okay and they comfort me.  They hug me and kiss me when no one had ever done that before. This makes me feel happy and loved.

Now there are so many other places that I know about and want to go to.  I got to go to Disney World. I want to visit New York City, London, and Switzerland.

I have more choices about what I can do.  When I grow up, I hope to study and take care of birds because I love birds and hope to work at the Carolina Raptor Center.

Life is better for me now because I have a family and I have friends.  I never had those before. I never had dreams.

I love my school, my principal, and my teacher.  I love to learn.  I love to read.  I even have my own books that are just mine and my own room and things that other kids can't take away from me.  I never had anything that was just mine before.

Now I work hard and never give up because I want my dreams to come true.  That would not have happened if I had not been adopted.




Friday, October 9, 2015

Consider The Birds


When I began to read Matthew 6:26, "Consider the birds of the air . . ." Cava clapped his hands together and declared, "Oh yeah! That's what I'm talking about!" Why? Because he doesn't need to be told to "consider the birds of the air" because he is constantly doing so. Ever since he got here, Cava has not only noticed bird, but made sure we did as well.

One of the first English words he learned was "bird." And he used that word alot as he would point and yell, "Bird! Bird!"  As he learned more of the language, we began to teach him the names of different birds that he saw around him.  I have never seen anyone get so excited about birds as Cava does.  I love his enthusiasm for anything avian.  I love that it has not abated even the slightest since he first arrived. Instead, his interest and curiousity has only grown as he has watched documentaries on the subject, as well as read books from the library, and cherished any book he's ever been given about birds.  After reading them, he will come and tell me facts about whatever bird had caught his fancy, particularly if it's about any bird of prey.


One of  the most magical moments for him was when we helped a baby Barred owl in our backyard (http://snapshotsfromourjourney.blogspot.com/2015/05/cavas-owl-adventure.html).


He loved Animal Kingdom because of all the birds they had there and his favorite moment was not a ride, but feeding a duck at lunchtime.


At Dollywood, once again, it was not any of the rides that he loved but seeing the birds, especially the eagles.  And the one place he wanted to visit most this summer was the Carolina Raptor Center (to read about it go to http://snapshotsfromourjourney.blogspot.com/2015/08/cava-raptors.html).

His birthday list starts with Legos.  One might think this has nothing to do with birds, but here is the one he wants most:

The rest of the list is centered around birds as well (puzzles, posters, binoculars, guides, etcetera).

He is constantly bringing home bird feathers he's found.



His latest excitement was over the Seven-colored Tanager.  He first saw this species when I showed him a photo of it on Facebook. He saw the photo and declared it, "Amazing."  This was followed by him telling me to Google it.  His only disappointment about this bird was that it was in Brazil. "Aww, man, that's not fair," he shook his head.  

Cava is the one who puts birdseed out in our feeders and then watches to see the birds come to eat out them.  He will sit at the window with his guides and try to find out which bird it is.

We have watched every documentary on birds that are on Amazon Prime and Netflix, the most recent being The Power of Owls, which we watched as I made dinner. I must admit, I did not know that there were over 216 types of owls.


I think he would've been fast friends with the poet Emily Dickinson, who wrote in a letter, "I hope you love birds, too."  He would heartily agree and would loudly tell her, "Oh yes I do!"  In her garden or from her window, she loved to watch birds as they "came down the Walk."  She and Cava are birds of a feather, if you'll excuse the pun, and both believe that:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -

Birds have definitely "perched" in his soul and his thoughts. He likes that God knows when a sparrow falls or that when we "hope in the Lord" that we "will soar on wings of eagles," though he was not as happy to find out that this verse did not mean we would literally fly like one. (As a sidenote, did you know that there are at least 55 verses in the Bible about birds?)  One of Cava's favorite bible stories is of the ravens bringing food to the prophet Elijah, though he did say, "That's kinda' gross."

A book that I want to read because of him is Debbie Blue's Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible in the hopes that it would give me new ways to talk about the Bible with Cava, especially since she says it provides us "with profound lessons about humanity, faith, and God's grace."


I am so glad that Cava does stop to "consider the birds of the air" because he has made me do the same. Something I might have taken for granted beore, now I am more aware of birds and, whenever I'm out and see an unusual one that he would love, I cannot help but smile and think of the delight that seeing such a bird would bring him.  For him, seeing a new bird, is like finding a new present under the Christmas tree for it is a source of joyous delight.  God has created so many wonderous birds and it is remarkable that it has taken this ten year old son of mine to truly learn this from him, because to "consider" the birds is to be present in the moment, to be still enough to notice them, to listen to their songs, and to appreciate their beauty.    


Even now, as I'm writing this, he is working on a bird puzzle and making bird sounds.  Do I have a future ornithologist on my hands? 



Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Openness


Yesterday I returned the rental car. My kids, who were fascinated by all of the buttons and gadgets on the Ford Fiesta, were disappointed. "Why can't we buy a new car like this one?"

"Because my old car is paid off, that's why," I replied. Besides, I never could figure out what all of the buttons on the rental car was for and there was no manual in the glove box for me to even try.

I knew when I dropped the rental car off that I would have to get someone from Enterprise to drive me to the body shop to pick up my car. Being introverted and shy by nature, I normally dread this. The idea of having to spend ten minutes with a complete stranger in a vehicle, making small talk (something I find awkward and extremely uncomfortable), was something that I tried to avoid. I have often sat in the barber's chair, getting a haircut and said nothing unless spoken to. But as I drove the rental car to Enterprise, I asked myself, "Why?"

Would Jesus?

Or Paul?

No, they would use this opportunity to be a witness to a complete stranger. Why wouldn't I do that, too? Because I'm not them. For years, I have avoided such moments by bringing a book with me, thereby avoiding chit-chat by reading. I have taken a book with me to many social gatherings over the years and snuck off to some quiet corner to enjoy the company of literary people over real ones.  And yet, in recent years, I have felt compelled to stop doing this and engage with others. It is not always easy for more - or successful. Each failure has caused me to doubt myself and wonder if I shouldn't return to the warm, safe confines of the pages of a book.

Now, when I dropped off the rental car, I did not have a book to retreat into, but I did have my smartphone, by which I could check e-mail, Facebook, or other important social media. I owed this driver nothing - right?  He probably would prefer not to have to enter into conversation too, right?

Yet, when I got into the van, I silently prayed, Help me to be open to this moment.

As we pulled off the lot, I surprised myself by asking him how long he had been driving for them. Then I commented on how his job must be affected by the personality of the person he was driving. He told me that he didn't let the passenger determine his day. If the passenger was irritable or complaining, he would just nod in agreement, but that most people were pretty nice.

How many of us care?  Do we think about how our attitude can influence or affect that of another person, especially those in the field of service (waitress, cashier, clerk, teller). Do we think about how a smile or a kind word or simply asking them how they are doing might be what they need in that moment?

I didn't talk about myself. I focused on him. Asked him questions about his life, found out about his family, and just took the time to see him as a person and not just as a driver who was there to get me from point A to point B. In her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris wrote, "True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person."  That is what I wanted to do with this man. And in listening to him talk about himself, I found myself glad that I did. I was accepting this stranger on his own terms and accepted his openness by receiving it as a gift.

Now I don't know if I made his day any better by asking him questions that were asked with the purpose of seeing him, really seeing him, and letting him know that he mattered, even to a stranger he may never see again. Why? Because he was made in the image of God by God. God had us in that van, at that moment in time for a reason. I trusted in this and did not withdraw into myself. God allowed me to be open without feeling like I had depleted something of myself. Instead, I felt enriched by this conversation. I realized it wasn't about me, anyway. It was about being open to what God wants me to be open to. As Henri Nouwen said, "To wait with openness and trust is an enormously radical attitude toward life."  Indeed it is. And this introvert will try to approach life with more of this openness.




Sunday, October 4, 2015

An Uncomfortable Truth


Fact: Christians outnumber orphans 7 to one.
Question: Why then are there orphans?

The only answer I can come up with is that Christians don't take seriously God's call for us to take care of orphans. Certainly anyone who has adopted has been told by someone else, "Oh, I couldn't do what you've done." Families who've adopted are viewed as being somehow better people and some view them with either a distant respect or with distrust. After we adopted one orphan and then hosted another, we were told, "Well, at least you are done now." As if somehow we can check taking care of the orphan off our spiritual check-list and now move on to the widows and the poor (as if all of them aren't interlinked together in scripture).

Not long ago, I read through all of the Old Testament prophets. While not necessarily easy reading, it was highly convicting. What I noticed was that they always called for repentance (first as a repentance from sin and a turning back to God, which is an inward action) and then a call to social responsibility (taking care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the sojourners, the refugees). An inward change leads to outward acts. Why don't we see that in the modern church?  We tend to see repentance soley as a fleeing from sin, but we don't connect the dots towards outward action and social justice.  In fact, many churches view social action as akin to socialism.  I once spoke with a pastor who, when asked to write out his mission statement for the church he was interviewing for, literally wrote down what scripture called the church to be and do and was told by that church that he was a "socialist." Because, even today, Jesus challenges our social conventions and shocks us either into obedience or separation from Him. Don't believe me?  Just try and live out the Sermon on the Mount and see how those around you react.

Yet Micah 6:8 commands us, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?"

God links justice with mercy. Why?

In his monumental work The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

God's concern for justice grows out of His compassion for man. The prophets speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea, called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God's relationship to His people and all men. Justice is not important for its own sake; the motivation for justice, and the validity of its exercise lie in the blessings it brings to man. For justice, as stated above, is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned , not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God.

Ultimately because it shows that God loves people above justice. Because of this, a person's "anguish" reaches the very heart of our Creator. Justice is not just about taking care of injustice, but, ultimately, in taking care of others to ensure that all have what they need. It's about dependence on Him and interdepenced on each other.

Jeremiah 22:3 tells us, "This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place."

God is telling all of us to walk in this manner, not just a select few. He is not asking, He is commanding. Too often Christians view those who do act on His command as being special or different.  Mother Teresa, Gary Haugen, and Katie Davis should be the norm, not the exception. All of us should step up to be a voice for the voiceless and the vulnerable. We should be leaders in compassion, sacrificial courage, and A Christ-centered conscience. As Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Missions, said, "God has a plan to bring justice to the world - and His plan is us."

But this requires us to move in godly obedience.  He wants action, not excuses. He calls for acts of love of endurance for the long-term to bring about change. We are to be brave, not safe. He has called us to love the unlovable, touch the broken and improverished, free the enslaved (and for those who don't see the modern slavery all around them, they are blind to the millions who are trapped in trafficking. The city of Charlotte, that we live outside of, is tenth in human trafficking in this country. And every 30 seconds, another person becomes a victim of human trafficking), and helping the victims of oppression and injustice. This means getting down into the dirt and reality of this hurting world. It means finding the beautiful where the world sees none, value and worth, where the world views them only with disgust and indifference.


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

Are we?

Are we walking in justice, mercy, humility, and love in obedience to God's call?  Are we the good Samaritans of the world, or do we move to the other side of the road?  How do we view the poor, the needy, the immigrant, the widow, the orphan, and the weak?  Do we love them as Christ loved them with a sacrificial and servant's love?  Do we embrace them? Defend them?  Protect them? Love them?  Christ does and, as His followers, we are to be known by our love. But are we?

Do we heed the warning of James 5:1-6?

"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days . . . You have lived in luxury and self-indulgence. You  have fattened yourselves in the day of the slaughter . . ."

Strong, harsh words.

Reading those words makes me uncomfortable, but God isn't concerned with my comfort. Why? Because too often comfort makes us complacent. For those who disagree and believe that God wants us to have a comfortable life, I would challenge you to read the prophets, about the disciples, and even of His own Son.

And for those who would defend themselves with, "But I'm not wealthy," by most of the world's standards you are. More than a billion people in the world live on less than a dollar a day.

"To whom much is given, much is expected," Luke 12:48.

Being the body of Christ is not about building bigger churches, being "better" versions of ourselves, getting richer and healthier, but in loving others, in serving others, in seeking justice for others because God requires us to. Ultimately, when we love, serve, and strive to help the least of these, we are doing so to give God glory, to point others to Jesus. We don't have to work for our salvation, but from our salvation flow good works. As it is said, "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:17).

Do we seek after justice, righteousness and peace?

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, wrote of the Old Testament prophets:

. . . some of the strongest language in the Bible about worship and justice, and it clearly makes a connection between the two. God "takes no delight" in the "noisy" worship of his people if their worship is disconnected from jusitce - from making things right for those who are poor and oppressed.

So, are we?

If not, why not?

Either because we don't believe God means it or because we just don't want to.

Repeating Micah 6:8, "What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

It's not about offerings, it's about obedience.

How different will not only the church but the world be if we took this at face value and acted as we are called?