Friday, May 27, 2016

Not All Birthdays Are Happy Ones

Tomorrow our host daughter turns sixteen. 

This is the age whereby a kid can "graduate" or "age out" of the orphanage system. The statistics on kids who age out of the system are bleak. 60% of the boys end up in crime. 50% of the girls end up in prostitution or sex trafficking. 10 - 15% of them commit suicide within the first year. We were very aware of this reality when we hosted her and it weighed heavily on us when it became painfully clear that we weren't going to pursue adopting her.

I'll admit, I began to ask God, "Why? Why would you bring this girl back into our lives if it wasn't to adopt her? When she left after the five weeks of hosting last year, I broke down in the parking garage of the airport. Partly out of exhaustion and partly because I was afraid of what her future would be like. Certainly she has no real concept of what could happen, as she told us that she would marry her boyfriend, have a baby, and they would all move to America.

My heart broke for this broken child. Whenever you adopt of host, you find yourself holding their pain within yourself. Their wounds are deep and their hurts come out in all manner of behavior. 

So it is with deep sadness that I reflect on her upcoming birthday.

Unlike when she was with us, this year like so many before it, she will not have a cake. No balloons. No presents. And nobody will sing or celebrate her life. 

In a letter she wrote to us, she wrote that she was not wanted by anybody. These are difficult and painful words to read. That a child knows she is not wanted. That such a view is how she looks at herself and her life. Unwanted. Unloved. Unlovable.

Tears streamed down my face when I read them.

We do love her, even though we cannot make her our daughter. Out of love, we pray for her every day. 

Out of love, we contacted missionaries in Ukraine. They visit the boarding school once a month and, specifically check on her, speak with her, spend time with her, to let her know that she matters, that she is loved (not only by us, but, more importantly by Christ). We send her packages with items that we know she will love. We send her letters that are translated into Ukrainian. I draw pictures for her. 

And the missionaries send us updates about her and photos of her. It is both wonderful and painful to get them. Wonderful in the sense that we get to see her and to hear how she is doing and it gives us some form of connection to her. It's painful knowing that is our only form of communication. It is hard to know that she still calls us "Mom" and "Papa."

In her letter, she wrote that she loved us. She called us her "family." It's sad to think that those five weeks may have been the only time in her life that she was with people who loved and cared about her. It's hard to imagine those as the only happy moments of her life. I pray that they aren't.

Loving someone, truly loving them, is never easy. There is often pain that comes along with opening up yourself to someone. We experienced this when we opened up our family to allow a girl from Ukraine to be a part of us for five weeks last summer. Those were some of the most hard and trying weeks of my life. 

It's hard to see someone in so much need and desperation.

It was like spotting someone drowning, but as one attempted to rescue them, they are so afraid and are thrashing about so desperately that they are going to cause you to drown with them. That's the best analogy I can think of to explain that time. Yet, despite the hurts and the hardships, we love this child. We continue to pray for this child and to reach out in the only way that we can to remind her that we do love and care for her. 

Maybe that is why God put her in our lives again for so brief a time. Through our reaching out, we found missionaries to witness to her and attempt to guide her as best they can. We send packages to say, "You aren't forgotten. We do love you." This also gives her a connection to the outside world, which she needs because those who deal in human trafficking are less likely to take a kid who has people who care about her.

We are praying she makes the right decisions for her life. That she makes good choices. We are praying that she realizes that there is a loving God. We pray for her salvation. We pray that she finds healing. We pray that she experiences joy and happiness in her life. We pray that she can break free from so many things that plague teenagers in the orphanage system. We pray that she doesn't create another orphan. I pray that, one day, in heaven, we will see her again.

Our hearts are heavy as we approach her birthday and as we come closer to the time she was here last year.

Our family asks only that you remember our host daughter tomorrow and that you offer a prayer for her life because we do believe that we serve a God who hears the prayers of His children and whose heart is for the orphan.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Peace Of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 
- Wendell Berry

Monday, May 9, 2016

Thoughts About A Bio Mom On Mother's Day

When I awakened on Sunday, Mother's Day, I found myself not only grateful for the wonderful mother my wife is to our two boys, but I also found myself thinking a great deal about Cava's biological mother. We know so little about someone who is so instrumental in the life of our family. 

So often on Mother's Day, we get so caught up in the celebration that we forget, for many, this is a day of sorrow. Many times throughout the day, my thoughts turned to a woman in Ukraine who I have never met but to whom I am so grateful. All I know is that in an act of heart-breaking love, she gave up her son in the hopes he would have a better life, a life she could not provide him. Yet in this act of unselfish love, how many times over the years has it caused her grief?

How many tears has she shed since that day?

How many times a day does she think about him and wonder where he is and how he is doing?

While Ukraine does not have Mother's Day, but has International Women's Day, is it still a painful reminder for her?

How painful is it for her to come across other women, mothers with their children, who are at play or showing affection for one another, and her heart aches a little more in what she will never again experience? 

Adoption carries both joy and sorrow. An adoptive parent must hold both of them within themselves. They know that the love they now have came at a great loss to another.  My heart was burdened for this woman today. 

There are those who might use the verse in Romans about how God works all things together for good in terms of adoption, but it's hard for me to; not because Cava's life isn't better now but because he will always carry the pain of loss, of abandonment, and of rejection throughout his entire life. It's also hard for me to apply this verse because I know that in another part of the world there's a woman who will always carry the pain of her sacrificial love inside of her. For her, every other mother with their child is a condemnation of her failure. 

I have shed tears for her pain and grieved for her grieving. 

She cannot kiss or hug her son. She cannot calm his fears at night and soothe him back to sleep. She cannot take care of him when he falls and scratches his knees or wipe away his tears. She cannot sing to him or say, "Я люблю тебе , мій сину (I love you, my son)."  

I have prayed for her a lot during this past Mother's Day.

I prayed because I could not hug her. I could not comfort her. I could not thank her.

I did what I could do: prayed. I prayed that God would do what I could not. I prayed that He would pour out His love and mercy and compassion and kindness on her. I prayed that He would comfort her in her times of loneliness, brokenness, and in her times of despair and pain. "Give her Your peace, Lord. Show her Your tender mercies."

While I was praying for this woman, I found myself thinking of one of my favorite children's books: Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. Taking it off the shelf, I reread this beloved work and was deeply moved by its message. What struck me most was the following page:

I found myself crying for this Ukrainian mother who so loved a little boy, her little boy, even more than she loved herself. She unselfishly gave him up.

Then I began to think about and pray for any mother who did this act out of the hopes that their son or daughter would have a better life. I prayed for those who see this as a day they would most like to forget motherhood and this day is not a joyous one for them. I pray that God and those around them would show them such tenderness and compassion. I prayed for their healing: that Christ would show his mercy to a bruised reed and smoldering wick. That they would feel his embrace, his love and grace. 

I write this because I want those biological mothers to know, adoptive parents do think of you, pray for you, love you and wish that they could thank you. You are in our thoughts, prayers and hearts not only today but every day we look at our adoptive children and wonder whether they have your eyes or nose or laugh. 

We thank you that you gave them life and opportunity. 

You, though we may never meet you, are just as much a part of our families as these children.

We love you.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Cava On His Mom

One of my happiest days was when Mommy came to get me from the boarding school in Ukraine. I could not believe that I was going to have a Mommy to love and take care of me. 

At first it was hard because I didn't speak English and Mommy didn't speak Ukrainian. But Mommy was patient with me because she loved me. I had never had somebody love me before.

Mommy lets me sit in her lap and she hugs and kisses me. She calls me her "baby." I like that. I like being Mommy's "baby." I never had been before. Papa said she called me her "baby" the very first time she met me. That makes me happy.

Mommy loved me first. I didn't love her. I didn't know what love was. Or how to. But Mommy showed me what love was.

She spends time with me. She colors with me. She helps me with Legos. We watch The Flash together.

Mommy tucks me in at night and prays with me. She always asks me what I want for breakfast the next morning. She gets up and fixes it. My favorite is egg toast.

Mommy is always proud of me. 

I am so glad she is my Mommy.

I love you.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

God Our Mother

How many times have we heard children praying in their sing-song fashion, "God our Father. God our Father. Once again. Once again. Thank you for our blessing. Thank you for our blessing. Amen. Amen?" Would this change in our conscious and unconscious minds if "Father" was changed to "Mother?"

We are so familiar with the concept of God as Father but are we as comfortable with the image of God as Mother? Scripture supports both. The prophet Hosea spoke of God in this motherly image, "Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with the chords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them" (11:3-4).

In a culture where one of the biggest problems is the lack of a father in a child's life, how much more would someone whose grown up either without a dad or has a negative experience with their father, respond to God not as a Father, but as a Mother?

If one looks at statistics, they will see that 85% of youth in prison grew up without fathers. With such a predisposition against the concept of father, they might find themselves more drawn to a God who is presented as, ". . . a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you . . ." (Isaiah 66:13). 

63% of youth suicides come from fatherless homes.

90% of homeless and runaway children come from fatherless homes.

If they cannot experience the love of an earthly father, how will they be open to the love of a heavenly Father? We cannot love what we do not know. 

And what of those who have experienced physical or sexual abuse at their father's hands?  Can they then even begin to open themselves to the hands of an unseen Father who is reaching out to them?  

The novelist Shusaku Endo wrote his book A Life of Jesus to present Christ to a Japanese culture that rejected the idea of a heavenly Father. Their perception of "father" was their "Emperor." Because of this, they could not accept a "stern father" but preferred "gods and Buddhas" as a "warm hearted mother." In his book he sought to present the "ind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus." That's why he tends to stress the merciful, compassionate side of Christ. As he writes of Jesus as being "well aware of something, also, namely, love's futility in the world of material values. He loved the unfortunate ones, yet he also understood that once even they came to know love's futility, they too would be turning against him. When all is said and done, the hard fact remains that human beings are on the lookout for practical and tangible results . . . Yet love is an act which in this visible world bears no direct correlation with tangible benefits." 

Endo is presenting a Jesus who is not there to promote his political and economic dreams but to love without ulterior motives, to love as a mother loves her child. In Japanese culture, mothers are seen as self-sacrificing, rejected, and suffering (hence Endo's connection to Christ the suffering servant). Fathers in Japanese culture are often reviled and mocked. They are viewed as stern and absent. Isn't that how many of us see God?

If throughout scripture, especially in the prophets, God is presented as a mother figure, why don't we see that within the Church? Is it do to the patriarchal structure that has been set up within the Church itself, even to downplaying the role of women in the very creation of the Church itself?  Are we afraid of the strength of the feminine within Christian culture? 

Yet from the beginning, in the very creation story itself, we are told that God made both man and woman in His image. The feminine is as much a part of his identity as the masculine. Too often we are presented with this image of a tribal, blood-thirsty God who is constantly angered and wrathful, but we forget those of his nurturing, tender motherly side. As Isaiah wrote of God, "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not" (49:15). He is even more maternal than earthy mothers and cannot ever forget His children. 

In this culture that both praises mothers for breastfeeding and then shaming them when they do it in any type of public setting, are we comfortable with the image of God nursing us like a baby at his breast? Yet is there a more loving and gentle image of God than that? There's even the term the "milk of grace." How many wince at this? David didn't. I love how he wrote in the Psalms, "But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the child that is with me."

Those believers in the Middle Ages embraced this idea just as they were the bodily realism as Mary bearing Christ in her womb. Do we think of the unborn Christ who relied solely on his earthly mother to survive? She carried the creator of the universe in her womb. That ia a mind-blowing reality. As Saint Basil wrote of Mary, "Your womb He made more spacious than the heavens."

How can we not see how this stresses the importance of mothers. God could have chosen another way for His son to come into this world, but instead, He showed the sacredness of motherhood through Mary. 

Yet I think that is why we have too often focused on her as holy mother instead of God as this. We are more comfortable with an earthly mother than a heavenly one. Also, if God can be represented as mother, then we have to reevaluate how we esteem and value the role of women in this world.

Perhaps we do not value the image of God as mother in our churches because we, too often, do not value the role of women in them?  Which is odd since women make up 61% of church goers, to only 39% of men. 

If Christ, who we claim to follow, embraced, exhorted and raised up the role of women in his ministry, then why should we not do the same?  Why do we not embrace the mother-side of God? Even Jesus himself showed this when he lamented, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing" (Matthew 23:37).

As we are approaching Mother's Day, I hope that we, as believers, take the time to stop and truly consider this image of God as mother so that we can see a God who is loving, nurturing, caring, vulnerable and tender towards us, but also so that we can ask ourselves, "How do we treat the women in our congregations?"

If we find ourselves uncomfortable with the image of God as mother, then we must ask ourselves how much we really value them?

If we are willing to embrace God the feminine, God the Mother, then I think we will find a healing within ourselves, within our churches because we will not split what was never meant to be split. We will find wholeness when we accept the wholeness of a God who is more gentle than a mother with her child, who loves us more than a mother does her child because God's love is unconditional and without end.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Awe & Mediatation: The Tree Of Life

I have loved the films of Terence Malick from the moment I first saw Badlands. This only deepened with viewings of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Though I have wanted to see The Tree of Life ever since it came out in 2011, I never got the opportunity to until I ordered the Blu-Ray for my birthday. 

The film won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was hailed by critics, and is considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Roger Ebert even compared this film to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It opens with some of my favorite lines from the book of Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?"  It will be repeated later visually when the Mother, after the death of one of her sons, asks God, "Where were You?" The answer is a stunningly visual series of creation. 

An ambitious and vast meditation of a film. At times like a prayer as it contemplates the two ways of life: the way of nature and the way of grace. These two ways are portrayed by the Father (played by Brad Pitt) and the Mother (played by Jessica Chastain), as well as by two of the sons, Jack, and R.L. Jack, the oldest son, struggles with his nature and, while he's drawn to grace, finds himself,  like the Apostle Paul saying, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." This is shown in segments as Jack finds himself thrust in with a group of boys where he has to prove his strength and that he's not afraid (though it is quite obvious that fear is one of the things he struggles most with). In voice-over, we hear Jack say, "Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside of me." 

A devout Christian, Malick has made a film that is deeply theological and philosophical film, embracing the Bible as well as Kierkegaard and Heidegger. For Malick, time is not chronological but the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously and can fold back on themselves, so that he tells the story of the life of one family in Waco, Texas in a nonlinear form. Its poetic in the imagery and the way that repetition and visuals ebb and flow like the waves.

In many ways, this is kairos, God's time, and not ours. That is why we are shown the beginning of time as well as eternity.  In his Four Quartets Eliot wrote:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps in time future,
And time future contained in time past

Like Four Quartets, The Tree of Life has movements and repeated themes that run throughout it. Much like T.S. Eliot does in his Four Quartets, Malick uses film to meditate on time, mortality, faith, doubt, love, forgiveness and grace. This requires more from the viewer, who cannot be passive to appreciate such a contemplative film. This is not mere entertainment, but a rumination on the nature of life and of God. Not your typical film fare and this is far from most mainstream movie releases. 

It has often been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey because of its ambition, but I see it more closely linked to a film like Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror, also a nonlinear film that tells the story of a boy's relationship to his absent, poet father and his lonely mother.  Both films rely on voice-over and imagery rather than traditional narrative, plot structure, and character development. 

Both Malick and Tarkovsky are more interested in poetry, theology, and imagery of film. Like The Tree of Life, The Mirror is about how history repeats itself  through cycles of love and nature passed by generations both seen through the eyes of a boy, adolescent and grown man (all the same person). 

Dreams and memories are all apart of his life with as much meaning as reality, since the latter is shaped and formed by the other two elements. 

Both filmmakers draw from their own lives for these sublime masterpieces. Both are exquisite meditative journeys that draw in the viewer to make sense of the metonymy, ellipsis, and aposiopesis. These require the audience to move past traditional film watching where one passively sits there to not think but to be entertained. Instead, it's the audience who must make the connections and to see more deeply into what is unfolding onscreen before them. It is a rich and profound work that rewards those who are willing to undertake it. Many, however, will be put off by the film, so much so that when the movie was originally released, there were theaters who posted this at the box office:

This is cinema as art. There are frames of this film that could hang on the walls of any major museum and even bares resemblances to works by artists like Andrew Wyeth. I was even struck by how much Jessica Chastain resembled Helga, Andrew Wyeth's favorite subject. 

The gorgeous cinematography was done by Emmanuel Lubezki (whose work can be seen in films like Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant). 

This film ranks up there in the tradition of the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski. To call this film impressionistic and spiritual is to simplify the depth of it. There is such beauty and mysticism in this work that it challenges us. This film, like Tarkovsky's, does not just translate life into film, it transforms it.

 It is a rare work of beauty, power, and poetry. 

As the Mother (Chastain) tells her sons, "Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light." Malick's film does just that and I am thankful for it.

Here is the amazing trailer for the film: