Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Down on my Knees

There has always been something about the need to kneel when coming to God in prayer or in worship.  Why do people do that?  Why is it so humbling?  Why to people go out of their way to find a church without kneelers?  This question has been picking at my brain for a year now, and I wanted to write a brief post about something I have been doing to help change my aversion to kneeling.

Kneeling is uncomfortable, of course, as we are people who live our lives off the ground and on our feet, ready to move them wherever we please as quickly as a thought occurs to us.  But, even more so, we are a sitting people.  We sit at the computer, on the couch, at meals.  People get downright uncomfortable with seeing someone stand when they themselves are seated.  It's a beautiful thing--rest comes when everyone is resting.

But, in times of prayer, there is no image more moving than seeing a mother kneeling in prayer beside her child.  It's almost frightening the power we know comes from prayer offered and relinquished on our knees.  A friend whose prayer life I admire spends 10 minutes (with at timer so she isn't focused on how long, or tempted to make it shorter!) on her knees in prayer each morning. That isn't some magic formula, but hey, that's really something in my mind.

And yet, I rarely pray on my knees.  It is an act I reserve for complete privacy, for Mass, or, rarely, for desperation of pleading in prayer.  I don't want to put on a big show, or even let anyone know I am praying, so instead, I put on no show at all.  If my children were to come across me praying, they could just as easily believe that I was deep in personal thought.  I have turned "close the door and sit alone" into "secrecy."  The act of submission by kneeling in prayer has become shameful, or at least requires explanation if someone were to come across it outside of church.

But there are so many times a day I kneel with no thought of shame.  When I don't want to grab the chair for my computer, when I am changing a diaper on the floor, when I am grabbing under the car for a rolling sippy cup, when the last box of macaroni on sale is in the waaaaay back, bottom shelf.  I will kneel all day long for $0.25 macaroni.

And this thought has occurred to me for over a year--to write a bombshell blogpost that will destroy every reader's peace about everyday functional kneeling with this simple, inspiring-through-judgment thought: "If you will kneel for a diaper, to tie your shoe, or for the last bottle of juice, what kind of selfish jerk are you for not kneeling to talk to God?"

No.  Nope.  Not doing it.  Not going to use my words to take away your peace when you are just trying to go about your day.  I don't even monetize this blog, except for a few Amazon links to fundraise, and I don't need the blog hits from folks sharing to say "see how much better you could be if you weren't a selfish cad?"  (Think, the woman with cancer crawling up the stairs to read her children bedtime stories when you are counting out the melatonin and hammering the last of the s'mores chocolate at 8:55).

But instead, I really believe the Holy Spirit offered a little whisper to me to say "when you're down there, offer something to Him." So a few months ago, I tried it.  Instead of feeling shame each time I kneel at my computer, I have begun to use my daily functional kneeling to say "God, I think I need to pray for my friend right now, before I get up off the bedroom floor."  A quick, "God, she needs your comfort today."  Barely a pause, but before my email has loaded, or sippy cup is off the grimy asphalt, I have prayed an imperfect prayer for the friend who is having a hard day or the little hands that drop everything entrusted to them.  If there are 10 times a day I kneel down--to check Facebook in an uncomfortable position to make sure I only spend a moment, to change a diaper, to wipe the spilled everything, I get reminded to spend that moment as a chance to work AND offer a moment to my God who is always listening.

It is humbling work, this loving and caring for others as humans.  But when I am on my knees each day just to do some little work, thinking a prayer in that moment makes me more ready to offer my whole self each day to God, not just in times of crisis.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Walking Away a Winner

This morning I opened my Facebook and was greeted with this hopeful version of myself, On This Day, 2 years ago:

The time for waiting is over. We aren't going to give up at a token effort. Barriers knocked down. We will find the real you.

Oh, 2 years ago Jaime...it was a valiant effort. I am sorry to tell you that now is the time for accepting. Those doctors don't exist, as they are limited by the bounds of curing pathology. They couldn't find any (or weren't willing to look harder to find any) treatable pathology. Just symptoms and an Autism diagnosis. Take the Daisy you have and run.

She's doing more now than then. Sure, she's still wearing the same size as 2 years ago, but the docs will never look hard at slow growth (2 inches and 2 lbs since then). She's technically growing, and they won't do further testing. Her hand x-ray will show anomalous growth plate maturity ranging from 2.5 years younger to 6 months younger, but they will always interpret that data as "well she just has more time to grow." Her growth hormone is reading low in a static test, but they won't order a dynamic diagnostic test because she gained 1 lb over the course of 18 months, which is "following her own curve." All the tests they run, they do not care about the results. They will be interpreted as a reason not to do anything. Don't worry about coming up with the perfect question to change their minds. You go have your good cry in the hospital bathroom, and get back home to the good things. The fact that her cognitive growth is linked to her physical growth, well, that's not something they are going to get involved with.
After school naps make me happy!
Her 4 months of massive diarrhea will be brushed off, until we hound her docs for a shot-in-the-dark parasite treatment, after which it clears up. Oh, and that 6 months of feeding her gluten-free are a waste of time. It isn't the gluten. Same goes for the three months of dairy-free. Give the girl her yogurt. She's healthy enough, in terms of pneumonia, heart strength, lung capacity, etc. She has been monitored for developing leukemia that all kids with Down syndrome are. It's all healthy. Her first stage genetic scan is clear, but you will lose hours and hours of your fall wrestling the insurance company. Oh, and there is no one who is qualified to take your call, not Preapproval, not Existing claims, not any operator, so just press any option and ask to be connected directly to the supervisor. She's just not like other kids with Down syndrome. Not even like those with a dual diagnosis of Autism. It is a hard road to get quality, dynamic, reach-your-full-potential medical care. After 2 years, I can say we have exhausted all our options in traditional, local medicine. But, you will never feel like you did enough...because I no longer want to move in to phase 3 and start travelling to get answers--Mayo clinic, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, a skype consult with an alternative medicine specialist in Portland--all the places on your "up next" list. I am so tired, though. We have 2 more kids. I am wondering if there is any treatment that will release her caged cognitive growth. Because I know we can increase her size with growth hormone. But, let's be frank, 2 years-ago me, if her cognition doesn't improve, too, we'll be making caring for her harder. These are the things that used to keep you up at night. But now, we're working so hard each day, I don't have the same time to worry, so I've been sleeping well. Do I really want to move on to the Phase 3 attack with out of state consults? I am completely apathetic about it right now, so I guess that answer is no. More of our energy is being spent worrying about a little boy in Russia, a Camp of hope in Ukraine, helping our Churches here at home, and asking God if He needs us to be parents to a little girl in China. I think "my heart is where my treasure lies," is God gently guiding me and Andy through that Bible verse-- "I didn't give you passion and peace about trying to run these medical leads down out of state right now, because your treasure isn't there." Well, at least we aren't feeling like it's sinful to let this go. We love our Daisy as she is. Well, I could take less pinching, actually. But everything else. Yep. Just as she is. And the other day, she went on this little walking bike and finally pushed herself forward twice. I think the fish oil I have been supplementing her with has supported some of her progress since March (couldn't hurt, and it's not too expensive). I still think all those supplements are mostly snake oil, though, and there's no way to know if the magnesium, B12, peeled outer flesh of the bark of walnut tree saplings make a difference, but I do know why folks try them. Because they're here. Out of options, and wondering if they can do more. Wanting their kid to be better, but so tired of running from specialist to specialist whose expertise is in pathology, which your kid doesn't truly have. There has to be more. But I don't have to be the one to discover it.

We just have to be parents to this kid. Not her healers, too.

Right now, she's stimming and vocalizing in her playpen. She's happy in this little world. It's good enough today. When people light up, talking about Special Olympics, you will smile and say "isn't it wonderful?" and walk away, knowing your daughter will not participate, because it wouldn't be appropriate for her. She has no sense of winning or losing. Or even walking forward for any reason except getting a hug when she gets to you or that a stimming toy is waiting for her. The only inclusion that matters to her is eating on time at our family dinners, getting out of her stroller and swinging the second we get to the playground, and that Miss Jenn lets her touch the teacher's instrument at circle time when the other kids are sitting.

Dear Lord, she is so beautiful, she takes my breath away.  Thank you for picking us for the poorly timed Mass-singalongs, the pinches, and the stimming.  We get to see all the beauty that goes with it.  

Two years ago Jaime, you did really well. I know a lot now because of your efforts since. But, the worry about this mystery kid needs to be set down for a while. Your tears and thousands of miles driven, and countless favors of babysitting asked are appreciated. Their fruition is the peace I have saying, "it didn't work out. We are getting on with life." Sounds kind of pathetic, but it's not. Today, it's the strong thing to do--to walk away without an answer is walking away a winner.

Oh, and don't stress too much about the surprise baby, and Tug will be better after those miserable first six months. Hang in.

You, now

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Stuck on the Reef

Yesterday I told you the story of how our son, Nugget, and I dealt with his transition into our family after spending his first 7 years in a Chinese orphanage.  We were a Shipwrecked Family.  You all are wonderful, and have shared that story so well, that in 24 hours more than 2,000 people have read the post.

But I may have accidentally misled you.  Because in reality, Nugget and I have a good relationship and a great rhythm.  He almost never tantrums anymore, he does less categorizing of peers into a social pecking order, and accepts correction willingly.  He is even navigating family dynamics with his siblings at about a six year old level, though his belief that the two year old should be giving the same as him is still a daily struggle.

But this growth only defines one half of the parent/child relationship we have with Nugget.  Reading that post with Andy last night, he said he doesn't feel he is safely on shore yet.  He is stuck out on the reef.  The water is intense, and land is in sight, but there is still so much work to be done for this to be a natural give and take for him and Nugget.  It's something we have talked about therapeutically maybe once a month.  It always comes to the same conclusion:  Nugget does not trust a male caregiver, he just thinks it's kind of a joke.  Like how the resident comes in to get your history when you know the real doctor will be in asking the same questions and drawing the right conclusions ten minutes later.

Nugget views Andy as an older brother at best, whose authority can and should be tested time and again, looking for weaknesses and how well he knows mom's rules and authority.  It did not start out this way.  In China, Andy's were the safe, strong arms that carried Nugget everywhere.  But somehow, Nugget lost that instant connection on his arrival home.

Less than an hour after meeting Nugget.  Andy never wears this shirt now.
Such a reminder of the easy love we expected from ourselves.
When this series is done, expect to see Nugget's nickname change on the blog.
Sometimes I feel like I can find the right words to tell Andy I get it, and sometimes not.  It must help some because every time we talk about it he seems less-defeated the next day.  And I hear less of his "I will be nice to you but I find you a challenging person" tone--the one he saves for visiting friends' kids who are misbehaving bad enough to get some real consequences.  It's a sign of a deeper problem.  Each day my husband offers the same gifts I do, and his offerings are rejected while mine are mostly taken as they are given.  Last week I went away for two nights, and Nugget started eating like he was just home again--huge bites bolted without chewing while Andy reminded him of all our steps to eat properly.  He forgot all his getting dressed steps again.  Tears were the byproduct of every denied request.  Fights were picked, and 3/4 of his waking hours were spent pouting over a sibling who wouldn't give up her bike (that he can't ride) so he can see if he learned how to use a 2 wheeler in his sleep.

Even when I am home, Nugget will only ever try to play Andy off of me, and not vice versa because only Dad's "no" can be overridden by Mom's "yes."  If dad asks him to clean up, he looks at me and says "Mom, is that ok, I just listening to Dad?"  What that translates to is not "do I have permission to listen to Dad?" but "Look at how I am obeying you by listening to Dad."  And some of you are closing your eyes, and rocking with the rapture of Halleluias as you raise your hand in the air at the computer screen and shout "mmm, preach!"  Because getting someone to understand this from scratch is difficult, and useless.  You just look like a nitpicky jerk, or they sympathize, but have no idea how this could happen.  

I am writing this for you, the preferred parent, because the burden of helping fix this is on you.  You are the one who is not at your wits' end.  You get some kind of positive feedback from your relationship with your kiddo.  I am not talking about manipulative triangulation (Dad makes child favorite food for lunch, kiddo thanks mom knowing full well that dad did it), but a sense that the kid just doesn't click with your spouse.  This is not the be-all, end-all discussion of this topic.  This is my letter to me.  That's why the kid is male and the non-preferred parent is a husband.  I know that isn't the case for some or even most folks.  Change pronouns as you need to.  If it's useful to you, great, and if not, just drink your coffee and pray for something that makes sense to you, knowing that other people are here, and there must be some hope for all this.

Here goes.

Dear favored parent, 

Here are a few things you need to know to preserve your married relationship and support your spouse as he takes the hard road to a healthy parent/child relationship.  Your road may have sucked, but it was the easier way if only because it was shorter.

1) Believe your spouse.  You may be tempted to try to find the source of the disconnect in some aspect of your husband's understanding of parenting.  This is only useful to the point that it helps him feel it isn't some immaturity or a fundamental flaw in his personality that is creating this problem.  You are parenting a traumatized kid.  Even if you have experience with that, you haven't parented this traumatized kid before.  Be gentle, encouraging, and kind.

2) Do an objective evaluation of your child's developmental age.  Assess their functional academic intelligence (not eventual capacity, but right now).  Assess their working memory.  I swear, the one thing we say time and again in our adoption support groups is how smart our kids are.  Even when they are academically lost, there is a survival intelligence that post-institutionalized kids just have, and use to keep their circumstances predictable.  Some kids puke on demand while looking you dead in the eye to make sure an adult doesn't ask them to eat anything undesirable or so you can't leave to go grocery shopping.  Sometimes they watch for stress in your life and give you a hug to make sure you notice their importance to you.  Some of our kids are incredible memorizers and some are masters of lying.

At the heart of it, though, you have a kid who (if internationally adopted) is no longer speaking their native language.  They are Limited English Proficient (LEP), and need to be treated as such in our expectations of them.  When they are trying to remember "go to your room, pick up the toys first, and then make your bed," they are oozing stress hormones.  Most of us think with words, and our LEP kids don't have a fluent internal dialogue.  What this means for relationships for us is that the kid may only have the capacity to follow one parent's directions.  To entertain the possibility of always being "on" for two adults is something the kid isn't capable of right now.  The non-preferred parent may have to make requests visual (picture list of steps requested) to get the compliance that the other parent gets with words.  

3) All your kid's relationships have to first be addressed through a lens of pathology.  Every relationship has to be assumed to be unhealthy and proved well through gentle releases of restrictions and rules.  You navigated the sick version of "be pleasing to stay safe" or "be so needy that you stay safe" or "break every rule to find out how much trouble you can possibly get in to find out if this caregiver is really safe."  And you overcame it with the consistency of your response, the hawk-like focus on rooting out inconsistency, the prevention of of new pathological tests before they cropped up.  You are probably the parent who does this best on instinct alone, so you have been allowed into your kiddo's world.

Unfortunately, there is a one-parent limit into safety world for your kid.  Or maybe you are the one who is focused on always saying yes and your kid started with another pathological relationship that led to true connection with time because of your safety.  I don't know how it works, but for some of our kids, it seems like there is only room for one.  Acknowledge that your kid's receptivity to you is different than to your spouse because of the nature of trauma--NOT because you have some magic key they need to mimic.  Get it into your mind and truly believe that if you cloned yourself, your kid would only be able to click and grow with one of your two copies of you right now.

4) Relinquish your own authority when kid tries to go over other spouse's head.  But don't play their game.  This one is hard, because it's really easy for your kid to use it to feed their false narrative that only one parent is good.  For instance, when Nugget hears Dad is going to the grain elevator to pick up pig food, he turns and asks me "Mom, can I go with Dad to get pig food?" I used to respond "ask your Dad," which reinforced his belief that mom was the authority.  Now I don't look at him, and walk out of the room like I didn't hear him.  If he pursues me, I will give him a non-verbal look that is the same as your response to the question "Are you going to give me a car and my own iPhone when I turn sixteen?" and then move again.  He pretty much knows at this point that this is not my permission to give or deny.  Then he runs and asks "Dad, I can go with you?" and dad is often peeved at the game (because he's a human being) and thinks "no, because you proved again I am nothing to you," but instead says "sure."

5) Praise the heck out of your spouse when he is nice when he doesn't feel like it, when he uses a loving tone, and for any progress kiddo makes towards accepting him.  Do NOT praise your kiddo for this improvement.  This is a tricky one and assumes your traumatized kid isn't making any effort.  Back in the times when we were both lost with how to survive the challenges of Nugget, we figured out that we could be kind even when we didn't feel loving.  Remember that time?  When you looked on that kid's face and didn't go all "There may be something there that wasn't there before"?  Your spouse is still in it.  Point out to him when you see a little glance of admiration, or a quickness to comply, or any time he asks your husband something directly.  You need to help your husband to look on his kid with love when the opportunity presents itself.  This is going to take some time.  The sense of failure for not being the preferred parent is strong, unfair, and real.  It happens in bio families, too, in kids with processing issues and cognitive differences.

One thing I work hard not to do is comment on Andy's and Nugget's relationship to Nugget himself.  If a stranger comments, great.  But for me to insinuate myself as an observer with a goal for how their relationship can and should look, I am going to accidentally kill the little plants by over-fertilizing them.  The improvements will be about pleasing me in the kid's hyper-focused eyes.  But, when I let the relationship itself be the reward for the one who is responding to the efforts of my self-sacrificing husband, I am giving them the air he needs to come into this on his own.  My role is to help my husband not become resentful in the apparent futility of his efforts.  It might be wise to get in touch with a professional counselor to help shake the truth out of this situation so your spouse can get back in the pursuit again.        

6) Pray for your husband, audibly, and with the shameless fervor you would ask God to remove a tumor from his body.  Lay your hands on him, and just pray.  You can tell this post is getting wordy and too generalized and then uselessly specific, because it's heavy with advice giving.  You know what your spouse needs to get through this challenge.  Or maybe it's a child who isn't clicking with the adopted kiddo or kiddo from trauma or with a challenging diagnosis.  What matters is that you do not assume your connection to the kiddo is because of something you did that your better half can just imitate to get similar results.  You are asking your spouse to find a path that has been blown up behind you, so it is going to take a new path to get in to your kid's heart for the other parent.  When you are trying to find a way into hearts, it's your best first step to talk to the One who made those hearts.  At the worst, it's a reminder that you are both loved and doing Godly work to redeem one heart.

7) Seek out and offer respite to the non-preferred parent, even though you may do most of the childcare. My next post is going to be all about respite, and staying healthy by getting the heck out of this place from time to time.  But even giving your husband the space to work on something alone without a kid helper every now and then can be huge.  I am notorious for tossing a few kids into the car with my husband, because I know he isn't deliberate about one on one time with the kids and those are some of my best memories of my own dad.  But, I am going to try to warn him a bit now, because I know he won't ask for some space until he is at his wits' end.  And that will not lead to happy memories for anyone.  I am also trying to work out a way to get him to the August meeting of The Atlas Club, an extra-needs dads' retreat in Afton, Virginia that the new respite organization A Mother's Rest is putting together.  It is becoming more apparent that our "recklessly abandoned to Christ" lifestyle needs much more deliberate times for rest and family togetherness than our old lives required.

7) Just say how proud you are of your spouse for having the tough job.  And admit it's nice to look at your kiddo and feel something positive.  Share those positive things you feel once in a while, just to say "this is a normal kid under that thick layer of BS, so keep fighting you incredible dad, you."

As you can tell, I really know nothing, but this is at least what we're trying.  For tonight, there's 89 episodes of Frasier recorded on the DVR and an Edwards chocolate creme pie in the freezer.  Let's get back in it tomorrow.

There is probably the biggest reason we aren't adopting again in this post.  And it breaks our hearts, because Hazel so desperately needs a family now.
What daddy couldn't see this little girl, just untied from the corner of this crib, and not want to make her his?
But Nugget's and Andy's relationship is not all there yet.  And may not be for a long, long time.  And we know how adoption can rock a family, so you better start emotionally in top form.  And so Hazel cannot be ours.

There is real grief that my husband is continuing to confront alone from our son without being active on Facebook, without having any real life friends to talk to regularly (he's a guy).  My husband does not rest until every one of his kids is at their best.  He set that standard all on his own, creating and defining the role of a father in the family he wanted.  A family strong enough to bring hurt children in and help them heal.  If I can do these seven things every day, I can at least not stand in the way of the hard work he alone must do to make that dream become reality.   One day I know he will win the heart that keeps insisting it does not need him.
Photographs are so important in this battle for hearts.
There is truly something growing between this Andy and Nugget, if only for a moment.    

My husband's vocation is to be a father to these eight children.  To love them where they are at, to raise them in the faith, to form their consciences, and to fight for their restoration when they are hurt. It is a privilege to stand beside this man in the hardest version of that calling he has experienced yet. He is waiting for the tide to rise again, so the waves don't throw him against the rocks.  He cannot rest, but I will make sure he does not grow too weary.  Some days I think he is just going to give in, but I know he will never be happy until he feels like this little boy is his son.  Until he doesn't have to use the word "should" when he describes how he feels about him.

I think there is a big metaphor of God's love for us in here, but I'll leave that for you to ferret out.  In the meantime, I will watch and wait for Nugget to know what his siblings and I know.  He has the best Dad in the whole world who will watch and wait, for as long as it takes, for the chance to make it to you on the shore.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Shipwrecked Family

My dear friends, as many of you know the past 18 months have had major challenges for the Open Hands Acres family.  Adoption almost invites that time of crisis by its very nature.  A child who is asked to live in a new place, in a family for the first time, from an uncertain background is going to take a long time to stabilize.  Folks want to hear about it sometimes.  Adoptive parents need to prepare.  But I have been hesitant.

Why haven't I been cataloging Nugget's progress towards healing on this blog, then?  Because, unlike our precious Daisy with her dual diagnosis of autism and Down syndrome and fantastic cognitive delay, Nugget is cognitively typical.  The world knows he has repaired spina bifida and now-stabilized hydrocephalus, but my son came home at age 7 with only one critical special need: not having a family for the majority of his life.  To "out" him as being a challenging kid would have been unfair if I couldn't immediately confirm the resolution and tell you our kid is lovable, loving, and safe.  He just had a hard road to get to his true self.

You should know first off that the child we brought home was not Nugget.  Not as we dreamed him.  Not the smiling boy in photos, the toddler-sized 7 year old whose new daddy carried him all over China as he wore a proud smile and shoes that fit him at last.  We brought home a broken little boy who tantrumed and screamed and cursed us for 45 minutes in the holding area of the Beijing airport before our 13 hour flight boarded...because he ran out of potato chips.  

Waiting for his exit interview with US Consulate.
Nugget is days away from his 7th birthday, but acts and looks more like a 3 year old.
For perspective, Jedi is  only 15 months older than him in this picture.

At the time, I wasn't sharing this information because I thought it would be unfair to shape people's opinions of him based on his freak-outs.  I share them now because I can say, without a doubt, our precious little boy was releasing the pain and loss he felt that his forever mommy and daddy took 7 years to come get him.  Bonding wasn't his issue.  He knew this huge, bearded dad and blonde, silly mom we were his parents and he deserved us.  But he didn't know why we had taken so long.  And he was angry about that, as was his right.

And this is all a precious, neat, and tidy summary of our little boy's heart.  In hindsight, it was beautiful grieving and restored our little boy to his true self.  Living it, however, was a far different story.

In his grieving, our 40 lb, 3 foot 5 toddler-like-7-year-old brought our family to its knees.  It was his right to do it, I see now.  But after 6 weeks, in the heat of the moment, I would have done anything to just get him to shut up.  My husband and I established that we had about 6 weeks of 5-times a day, 45 minute attended tantrums in our reserves.  That was an exceptional reservoir of patience.  But our son still needed more.  If our marriage had not been healthy, if our already-home kids had needed more, if we hadn't bought cable TV or had our tax refund available to enroll them all in a semester of Catholic school...we might have capsized.  Our boat was taking on water, and our family boat was seaworthy.

Truth be told, it scares Andy and me to remember how heavy the burden of caring for this little boy's emotional needs truly was.  And it's scary to think how emotionally distanced we were from this little boy we had fought desperately for to get home.  People would come over and comment on how amazing his English was, how helpful he was, how receptive he was to trying new foods.  I am not a person who can lie to myself, so I would say "oh yes, isn't it amazing?" without feeling any connection to that accomplishment as a success for Nugget.  I was just waiting for his next tantrum to begin.

We tried seeking help, but our play therapist was inconsistent and kept cancelling appointments.  Our physical therapist said he was making huge progress, and all I saw was how ridiculous his exaggerated intentional hip sway was when he walked.  There was nothing this kid could do that wouldn't confirm my belief that he was unlikable, trying to pick a fight, and sucking the happiness right out of our family.  Each morning I woke up and was just grateful that he would be out of the house for a few hours at school, and grateful that his teacher was not being charmed by him, but helping him grow without resenting him (she caught on to his finger peeling as a tool to go to the office to get bandaids and antibiotic cream on days he felt like he wasn't being reassured she liked him best).  And sometimes, when he would refuse to get in the van at the end of the day and tantrum, sitting in the slush in the parking lot in front of the school while the rest of the children waited indefinitely, I felt the kind of peace that comes when the world has no choice but to see what you go through.

Once when we went to Walmart and his brother got a new pair of gym shoes (he was wearing the new shoes he had just gotten that week), Nugget screamed from the back of the store to the front of the checkout, wanting me to leave without buying anything for his brother.  A woman came up and told me that that boy needed some discipline.  And then I ended her good day.  There was an aggressive march into her space, a shaking finger in her face, and tears and shouting and talk of Chinese orphanages and questioning her salvation.  About 10 seconds later, I stopped making a fool of myself and kind of collapsed, and the floor manager picked up where I left off and told that woman to move on.  The manager tried to give me a hug (I was standing with my head in my hands, and couldn't reciprocate), and said not to worry one bit.  I was always welcome there and so was my son, who was still raging.  My other kids were stupefied.  If that manager hadn't made taking care of me her business, I don't know how I would have gotten out of that store.  I will always be grateful to her, though I was too despondent to get her name.  She carried me that day, and for several days after.

The only reprieve Andy and I had was each night when we would eat dessert and watch a few TV shows.  Nugget was a good sleeper.  I gained 15 lbs.  And then morning sickness took hold as a new baby entered our lives at a miserable time, truth be told.    
Embracing his Irish heritage, aged 2 years in just 3 months.
Sometimes we would just thank God he was so tiny and we could all be physically safe when he raged.
Orphanages are no place for children.    

As we went to medical appointments, I started to get stories from our son.  We have since established that a lot of the traumatic things he described did not happen to him as we originally thought, but were witnessed by him.  Our son is incredibly empathetic.  Our son is a protector.  And he was forced to endure the deliberate repression and abuse of both of those gifts.  What I could not predict was how this hurt little boy needed to bring us down with him in order to come out on top.  Both of us stopped growing in our love for him as parents.  And that feels like crap.  We were just surviving. When the tantrums finally ended around 6 months home, we were a shipwrecked family.  We were alive, and we were going to be ok, but it was going to take a while to make up for lost time.  To grow, to thrive, to be ok again.

Throughout those chaotic months, we had had glimmers of hope and snippets of connection.  At the Reece's Rainbow family reunion 7 months home, there was a chance to see other families who were doing "surviving long-term," and they were turning that into thriving.  I began to see hope for us.

Nugget ages to about 6 in the next few months.
Bouncing at the family reunion with Reece (the namesake of Reece's Rainbow), Jedi, and Cal.
Wearing his favorite shirt that reads "I am the Pot of Gold at the end of Reece's Rainbow."
You are, buddy.  You are.

The county fair was unexpectedly healing for me.  Seeing Nugget out in the arena with a 256-lb hog during Peewee showmanship was a real turning point for me.  He was so tiny, and so confident, and doing a terrible job technically, but smiling, and ignoring his pig, who he was not afraid of, and waving at me like he couldn't believe I was watching.  And I have to tell you, my friends, I was so stinking proud of our little boy.  Like, tears in my eyes, and waving back like I hadn't just walked him to the show ring myself 30 seconds before, and having a TV flashback moment of how far we had come.  How the desperation of our sinking ship had everything to do with the gift of this moment of joy.

My two seven year olds after swine PeeWee showmanship.
That participation ribbon meant so much to Nugget, and to me.
The trophy Lumpy won meant the world to her.  The other kids had not been lost, somehow.

And in that show ring, there was something real and not just momentarily euphoric.  We were going to be ok.  We were the Swiss Family Robinson, not Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball.  We were going to love this little boy, and we were going to build a home on our shipwrecked island that would make people wish they were so lucky.  We could heal the past eight months.  The peaceful home our other children had sacrificed would be restored.  Nugget could heal the past 7 years, at least well enough to function in society and most importantly, in our family.  We could forgive him for needing that, and ourselves for not living this with perfect grace and happiness.  And I am so dang proud of this kid for what he has let go of to make that happen.  He is, in many respects, a stronger person than Andy and I were the day we brought him home.  The other kids as well.  And we are all going to be ok.

A real smile.  An eight year old boy who is, often, eight years old at last.
(Thanks to Adria Peadon Photography in Panama City Beach for capturing this moment.)

But we will not forget where we have been.  It was a hard place, but it was a holy place.  No little boy should be out in those waters alone.  But not every family finds shore so quickly as we did.  Now that we are stable and our new treehouse construction is well underway, we have a new focus, and a new mission, in our home, and out in the world.  I can't wait to tell you more.  

Treehouse construction of a once-shipwrecked family.
Deliberately making and holding onto good memories.
(Adria Peadon Photography)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Finding My Way Home, Part 2: Searching

When I last left you, I had planned to finish telling the story of how I found my faith home within the next 48 hours.  Instead, our family of 8 took a month-long detour into sleepless nights and general misery which shall henceforth be known as the plague of 2017.  When our health was finally restored, it seemed a little selfish to skulk off to my closet with my kids' math computer for three hours to finish typing the rest up, leaving them to fend for themselves like feral little Mowglis without the benefit of a benevolent panther or lovable bear to keep them out of trouble.

So, you get me when you get me, and probably not at my best here, so let's let the Holy Spirit come in and do with it what He will.

The problem with a denominational crisis is that your faith has been formed by someone or something in your past.  My Evangelical friends would point to this as a fatal flaw in having anything besides a Bible teach you about faith.  But for me, there wasn't an option to go back to my childhood and change.  But what did that really matter?  At the age of 22, standing in the hallway of my childhood church, talking to my priest in the moment of my crisis of denomination, I was the most non-denominational Catholic in the world.  I didn't really have a Catholic faith life outside of Mass, making the sign of the cross for prayer, and receiving Communion.  You could literally watch a movie of my faith life to that point and not be able to tell which kind of Christian I was.

But along came Britt.  On our first date, when we were both 21, I felt this huge wave of relief when he told me he was Catholic.  It seemed like so much of the tension of my previous relationship had started from the differences in religion, though the reality was that God just had much better people picked out for us.  As we got to talking, I found out that he had been baptized in elementary school, but his family hadn't been able to swing the cost of catechism classes, so they didn't go to church or go to classes, and he had never done his First Communion or been Confirmed (the last two Sacraments of Initiation most cradle Catholics complete by the end of high school).

This struck me as a real flaw in the Catholic church.  All this money stuff.  The story of the old priest in the Caddy and my granny.  Mom bristling at my sister saying loudly "you put $20 in the basket?!" when we visited a church where the ushers brought the baskets around.  And now they were keeping people's kids out if they didn't have the money?  That just seemed wrong.  In college someone had mentioned to me that the Vatican was sitting on piles of gold, which I envisioned as Scrooge McDuck's money vault.  How could they be doing Jesus' work if they were keeping their treasures on earth hidden away?

I started to get a little testy about this whole thing.  I had questions, and no one to answer them.  Britt and I were going to be married soon, but I wasn't about to go off half-cocked and get a minister off the internet.  We were going to do this respectably, in the church.  Besides, I went to the wedding of a non-denominational friend in the beautiful outdoors.  I was late getting out of work, and pulled up 3 minutes late.  I missed half the service, and they were walking back down the aisle by the time I had made it to the back row of chairs.  What the heck?  An $800 dress, and only 6 minutes of people staring at it?  Oh, I wanted a whole hour-long Mass and to receive Communion together.  Besides, the person I was going to marry shouldn't be a baby Catholic.  He should be ALL Catholic and bitter.  Like me.

So, when we moved to East Lansing to go to grad school, in our separate apartments, Britt began the process to receive his first Communion and Confirmation, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, RCIA.  I would be a co-sponsor to him, so I attended all of the meetings, too.

At last. Sitting in that basement all-purpose room each week, I began to hear about what the Catholic Church believed and taught, and got a taste of what all the sacraments meant as an adult.  In the process, I began to chew on just how very angry I was.  I was angry that I was as ignorant as the candidates in that room.  I was angry that I had spent 10 years going to PSR as a kid and had learned only that Jesus loved me.  I was angry at the people who couldn't answer my questions.  I was angry that I had no good explanations for why the church did what it did, and angry that the adultier adults around me were still ticked about Vatican II and lamented the loss of the Baltimore Catechism, while also saying they hated it.

I realized I was in a lost generation, being taught by an abandoned generation, who was raised by a fearful generation.

My Catholic upbringing was nothing short of dysfunctional, and I needed therapy.

Acting the angry adolescent, I aggressively fished for answers in that RCIA class.  If our instructor wanted to offer us an overview, I took the whole 20 minute question and answer period.  Sure, there were books and the internet, but they don't fight back.  I justified my rudeness by saying that the best thing we could do for new Catholics was to give them the tools to understand their faith well enough to defend it.  Interestingly enough, I have heard recently that the Catholics who have the best Catechism (knowledge of the sacred tradition and teachings of the Church) are those people who were once RCIA candidates.  I see why.  These adults had such a huge leg up on understanding their faith than I ever had.

So, Britt completed RCIA, and received the sacraments.  I had stopped attending classes with him at the end because my angry was all worn-out.  We got married that summer at the small, modern country church I was baptized in, and made the radical decision not to use birth control, or actually learn anything about Natural Family Planning either.  Part of this was because I had dropped out of grad school and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  I was applying for vet school when I got pregnant, and realized I didn't want it enough to do it while pregnant and then with a baby.  I started tutoring part time.  We usually went to Mass.  We had a beautiful baby a few weeks after our first anniversary.  We used contraception for the first 6 months after she was born.  Then we didn't want to mess with it because we didn't want to be in flagrant violation of the church's teaching, which we didn't really understand, but Britt at least knew about.

The one bright spot was one of the priests at our church, Father Joe.  Listening to him felt like listening to Jesus--you understood why the disciples dropped their nets and just said "I want to do what you're doing."  The man oozes humor, wisdom, and love.  I truly experienced the heaven-connection in the sacraments for the first time at the Student Parish of that college town.  I experienced Eucharistic Adoration (venerating Christ in the Eucharist with song and prayer and meditation) for the first time, and began to sense Communion with the saints (connection to other believers for the past 2,000 years) was maybe a real thing.    
But, there were downsides.  This church was within walking distance of campus and was designed to meet the needs of single college students without families.  There was a nursery at church that was never staffed, because people kept no-showing, but hey, that was part of the song and dance, right? Wiggly kids at Mass was a rite of passage.

That year, I got pregnant again.  And this baby would be born before his sister was two years old.  I was 26 when he was born.  We had 20 more years of fertility in front of us and a grad student salary, with no end of grad school in sight.  I got a little panicky.  I had a bit of PTSD from the complicated second pregnancy.  I didn't want another baby before grad school ended.  And Jedi was so, so naughty.  We began to desperately need the nursery room.  Britt and I were going to Mass and spending the whole time in the entryway. Two other young grad school moms and I tried to start a playgroup, but we found no reason to get together in the church, where we had to pay for parking, when going to each other's houses was easier.

One of those moms (who will be our newest baby's Godmother in a few weeks) was going to a Mothers of Preschoolers (MoPs) group in a big non-denominational church on the south side of town.  She said there was childcare and time to talk to other moms.  I was in.  Walking into that church was like a balm to my dang soul.  Everything, from the coffee, to the childcare, to the 70 moms just like me--for a woman with no family nearby and a husband working 100+ hours a week, made this my safe place.  It was heaven.

It didn't take long before I began to say to Britt that we can't keep up our Sunday routine without eventually hating Jedi for being hard to manage at Mass.  Maybe we could just try the MoPs church for a few months, and see what happened.  The words on the door said their Sunday EVENING service started at "7ish."  We could sleep in and bring the kids in their jammies if we wanted to.  The kids club seemed good enough, and taught the kids basically what I had learned growing up, just without making the sign of the cross, which we could toss back in any old time.  Britt and I dropped the kids off, got our coffees, sat in the darkened theater, and sang catchy songs I hadn't heard since college.  And the teaching--sweet manna from heaven!  It was nothing short of the best history lecture I had ever attended in college.  Each time our pager went off, saying that Jedi was having a hard time, the nursery team (there were more than 20 of them and the kids were sorted into age groups) actually apologized to me that they couldn't soothe him!  No dirty looks here.

Well, those few months turned into a few years.  We had another baby, and even though we hadn't really attended Mass in a year, we took her home to the church we were married in to be baptized.  It was a strange thing, but we just told people our son couldn't handle Mass, so we were going to the non-denominational church rather than staying home.  I just couldn't admit to the world that I couldn't reconcile the unanswered questions of the Catholic faith, as my husband was the neophyte, and I was just tired of making my own place to rest.  We decided we should probably just join the non-denom church as members.

Then things started to come up.  My kids started calling our new place "play church."  Mom, are we going to play church today or the other church?  Should our kids be thinking of the word play as the way they describe their church?  It is a child's work...but hey, ok, they like it there, right?

The other concerns weren't as easy to dismiss.  Maybe we were attending too inconsistently, but beyond baptism and marriage, there was no regular connection to a sacramental life.  There was nothing that made this warm building a place of worship except our desire to make it so.  The pastors all had wives and kids and I guess had gone to seminary.  As far as I knew, their job was to write sermons and marry people and baptize people and dedicate babies.  I used to say that they probably were much better at counseling marriage troubles than a priest because they were actually married.  But, there was no sacramental connection every week--an experience with the divine was about feeling the Holy Spirit in the music or seeing a connection to your own life in the teaching.  Many folks I knew well served at the coffee stations, or as ushers, or in the kids' ministry, but didn't actually attend the service.  They watched it online later in the week.  I kind of wondered if we should be doing that, too.  It seemed the service was for the newbies, maybe?  Well, I liked it, and we were still pretty new.

But still.  I sat on the overflow risers in the back, singing beautiful worship songs being led by basically professional musicians, and I began to focus on the same thing every week: if only I could be allowed to make my perfect church.  If only I could bring Christ's presence in the Eucharist to the heart of this passionate singing.  If I could bring the pastor's teaching to the priests who joked about how short their homilies would be when I was so dang hungry for more context, more history, more understanding.  If I could only bring a childcare program to parents hungry for Mass AND the respite.  I always ended just a little deeper in despair that such things were not possible on earth.

The final death knell came when I caught one of the pastors between services (this is a pattern for me, as I know the clergy are too busy to be my personal Google) and asked him the questions constantly firing in the back of my mind those early years of our marriage.  I knew Dave Ramsey was approved to teach us about finances, so there must be a church-recommended resource for me.  I asked him "What does this church teach about our fertility?  We are producing kids at an alarming rate here, and I don't really know what God wants us to do.  Is it wrong to use birth control?"  And he looked at me like I had six heads to expect him to interfere with that, and said that the church has no teaching on family size or birth control, but asks each believer to pray with God about it and do what's right for their family.  But they did believe believers shouldn't live together before marriage.  And they did believe abortion was wrong.  Why no teaching on something so important to married believers?

And in that moment, I knew.  As clearly as I knew in that hallway of my childhood church with my priest eight years before.

I was a Catholic.

I suck at discerning what God wants for me.  I am amazing at knowing what I want for me, and doing it, and asking God to get in line.  And that wasn't leading to the radical life of faith that I had been hungering for all those years.  It was wrapping me up in my own circles and struggles and life.  And I had questions.  Deep,"why are we here and is my life ok right now?" questions.  I didn't know what the Catholic church was teaching, but I knew they weren't afraid of saying what was right and what was wrong.  I didn't know why they thought birth control was wrong, but I knew they stood for something that I was obsessively worrying about.

After that conversation, I began to see that when people were telling me that I must go by what is written in the Bible alone (they used the term "Bible-based faith" to mean non-Catholic, Non-Mormon, etc.) they were saying that if God doesn't reveal His will for me in prayer, He must not have a preference.  Someone named Bill Hybels wrote a book called Too Busy Not to Pray that was hailed as a must-read when I tried to get through it in college.  In it he said that when we cannot determine which way God wants us to go, we should assume He's leaving it up to us to pick.  Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing marring the picture, but that seemed crazy to apply that to fundamental issues of faith.

I felt the pressure again to figure out, how does God speak to everyone else?  Good vibes, excitement, dreams, and feelings had led me astray before.  Consulting the Bible seemed a good next step, if I had an exhaustive knowledge of the context and language of the times, which I didn't.  I had heard people use the words "The Lord spoke to me," more times than I can count, and was always careful not to use those words myself, much like you will never catch me typing LOL, because I hate dishonesty. If I didn't hear a voice in the clouds, I should't say that, though I am sure those words have crossed my lips.  It made such an impression of personal failure on me that if I tell you I thought I discerned something from God, I am going to tell you in the same breath exactly how I knew.  

The closest I had come to discerning God's will at that point was an idea that wouldn't let go that I knew would probably tick off the Devil, so that wouldn't disappoint God, right?  Solid.


The anger I had felt from never finding answers concerning puzzles unraveled and explained as a Catholic was now surfacing in my new church, but without the history of neglect.  I would sit and think about a guy I went to college with who just loved the Eucharist.  He said it was the one thing that made us Catholic, and said this was being carried on as Jesus asked only one place: in the Mass.  When I was at the new church, I began to get the feeling not that I was in the wrong place, but instead found fault in their teachings, or non-teachings.  I grew distracted ruminating on the idea that they are denying the ONE thing I knew to be a fundamental truth at the core of my being--that when Jesus told his disciples "take this all of you and eat it.  This is my Body, given up for you," (from the Catholic Mass, taken from Luke 22:19) he wasn't being metaphorical.  It was in the Bible, but its literal interpretation was being rejected by people who believed the Earth was created in 7 days, because the Bible is absolute truth.

A person holier than me might have just started shaking writing this, because I see it now all here in one place for the first time.  The Presence of Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist brought me back to the Church--and I mean that in the fluffy way AND in that heady mystical way.  I AM so Catholic...

The most important theme of my time worshiping with Christian believers who weren't Catholic was decidedly protesting Catholicism in this one regard--they reminded us time and again that Christians should believe only in what the Bible teaches.  But, I began to see that their faiths were no less formed and influenced by their churches than the Catholic church was derisively described as being.  No one thought it was strange to read modern authors, whose books are really just one-person Catechism.  A friend or pastor's recommendation was enough to put it on our bookshelves and into the cannon of our faith.

The acceptable historical texts were the Pilgrim's Progress, and I knew people read the founders of the major sects, though I didn't, but definitely nothing before Luther.  What bothered me then that I couldn't put words to was the accidental hypocrisy.  That if God is actively speaking to believers in modern times, why shouldn't we be listening to what He was actively speaking to believers for the past 2,000 years?  What if someone had written those things down?  Were the writings of the Saints only relevant to the believers of their time?  Was there an expiration date on those truths revealed that with enough faith I could tap into heaven and discern?  For example, The Shack was a beautiful allegory that made me weep when a friend got me to buy it in 2008 or so, and was held as a beacon of beauty every believer should read.  I had written my own prayerful imagining of heaven that sounded very similar. Today, just ten years later, I see posts all over Facebook that this book and newly released film adaptation is a heresy, a travesty of modern Christian writing that violates the Bible at every turn. (Octavia Spencer is in it, though, representing a motherly version of God, so I am naturally disinclined to agree with them.) What other books would we be ripping off our shelves in ten years?

Once I pulled one of these threads, the whole thing began to unravel for me.  The Bible was written by early Christian believers, as I was told many times.  But, those early Christian believers were from one Apostle-sanctioned, holy Catholic church.  The Bible was divinely compiled through these early Catholics.  Who had a Pope.  Who believed in the true presence in the Eucharist and infant baptism.  Who convened a council to create the Bible.  The Bible which is now the foundation of all Christian churches, even Protestant and Mormon ones.  Why were we not saying that?  If we were Protestant (though I sense most non-Catholics seem to dislike that word), why not pinpoint exactly when the Catholic Church was no longer under the protection of the Holy Spirit, and then reappeared in the hearts and sanctuaries of the newly Protestant believers?  The salvation of people who wrote and compiled that holy book would be questioned by hundreds of thousands of mainstream Protestants, because they were Catholics.  Except Bible-believing Christians don't say that.  Or believe that. They focus instead on beliefs that we don't need a priest as an intermediary and God cannot transubstantiate the work of human hands into Christ's body and blood simply because Peter (the rock on whom Jesus built his church and first Pope) established it to be so.  And this is why I don't understand the disunity of the body of Christ.

No one was talking to me about those questions, because they just didn't see the conflict I did.  I was alone in straddling the divide between Catholicism and non-denominational Christianity, but not ready to reject the church that caused my hurt.  This uncertainty was rare despite the fact that 2/3 of the Catholics who leave the church to go to a different denomination choose an Evangelical (non-denominational) church.  Most Catholics are fine leaving for a place that better met their spiritual needs, and are attending more faithfully than people who never left the church.  Why was I alone wrestling so hard with that surrender?

Was I that hard-up for community and coffee and the most lovely, generous friends a person could hope to meet?  Because what my non-denominational church lacked in doctrine, it had an abundance of in believers seeking to do good things for God.  People were adopting, changing oil, volunteering, going on mission trips, putting together fun-runs, and pouring thousands upon thousands of dollars into a new sanctuary to accommodate the growing church.

And this is the problem.  3/4 of the folks reading this may think I am ragging on the beloved church we both attended, or where they find their home now, or any path that differs from mine.  But that isn't my aim.  I simply cannot explain my path back to the Catholic church in a way that doesn't mention my view of the doctrinal shortcomings of these non-denominational churches who know how to SERVE their fellow believers in community.  The did is effortlessly it seemed, with the love and time of other believers, sacrificially and lovingly given.  There is no question.  They do it beautifully, and better than Catholics, whose churches are rarely set up to be the center of a community life.  Who scrap, beg, and plead for just 6 people to teach Sunday school to more than 100 kids in our church.

I remember sitting in bed and asking Britt one night, could it be that we were being called to change all that?  Can you change the Catholic Church?  Not their teachings, what cloudy understanding we knew of them, but the communities?  Is that even possible?  Is it sacrilegious to think that?

The one thing I am not defending here though, is denominational relativism (you do what works for you).  Ecumenism (embracing what different denominations hold in common), definitely.  There is a brutal rift in the body of Christ, one that is currently masquerading as a good thing, as a choice to worship at a place that meets our needs.  That provides freedom to find a place that teaches what we believe.  For whatever reason that I won't know until God tells me Himself, I feel a strong burden that I do not have enough faith to pull that together--me and my Bible pulling out God's will and getting it right.  And I am so emboldened to think my fellow believers don't have it, either.  Knowing with certainty God's will is the exception, not the rule.

At the time, I had just an inkling of the desire to let my life be Mack-truck run over, and taken over by God's will, by conforming mine to His.  I am fearful of a church that springs from nowhere, guided by their faith and lovingly used by God to do many good things.  What makes me fearful is that it is too proud and sure, with no resemblance of the awe and reverence that defined our Jewish heritage.  I fear that it has no use for the old ways and reshapes God and worship in its own image.  When I visit the older denominations--Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, I see something I recognize in the predictability of format in their services, and it surprises me I never sought them out more.  They say the Our Father together every week.  The one thing we know we can't get wrong, because Jesus gave us those words himself.

What I began to fear was that with our coffees in hand, and the electric guitars, and the "3 song, 45 minute sermon, 2 song closer" format, with the lights dimmed and not a window in sight...we were no longer in communion with those who trembled to speak the name of God except on high holy days.  We were living with the New Covenant Jesus gave, yes, but did we lose all our reverence that we would no longer tremble at the thought of being near to the Holy of Holies?    

I never resolved those questions, but we were sad to leave that church all the same.  We certainly had nothing but love and respect for the faith and generosity and community we had found at that church.  I still miss that community, the music, the Bible-teaching sermons, the friendships I made.  After seven long years of grad school, we moved to our new hometown in 2010.  Just like rearranging your grocery store makes you question if you really like that place that much after all, we couldn't find a good fit for any of the non-denominational churches up here.  After a few months of church hopping, we hit on a church half an hour away.  We had made a decision that our spiritual questions were just not being answered by other faiths.  I called all the churches in the area before we visited one.  It had a preschool program during Mass.  We were going back to the Catholic church.

The second week we were there, the priest received a squirt blaster for his birthday, and used it to bless us all with Holy Water rather than the traditional mini whisk broom at the end of the service.  Unusual?  Definitely.  But a sure sign that we weren't in Kansas anymore.  If we were going to do this, we would have to commit to becoming Catholic when I wasn't angry.  Maybe I could even make it not all about me, and see if Britt wanted to take the reins of spiritual leadership of our family for a while.  If this church had enough community to pull off a preschool program during Mass, a sense of humor enough to sprinkle holy water with a super soaker, but reverent enough to kneel in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, then maybe we could make this work.

It was a new town, a new life, new friends, and a chance to find a new church home.  In hindsight alone I can see that God led us to stop searching for a church made in our image, and instead settle for a church made imperfectly in His.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Finding My Way Home, Part 1: Getting Lost

In the previous blog post, I talked a little bit about why some of my dear friends are not going to church.  This post is the story of why I stopped going to church.  I can't say that I am proud of it, but I want you to know that I take full responsibility for how it all went down.  Reading it through just now, I think I actually owe my family a huge apology for making them answer for my confusion.

I am going to start by alienating a good portion of you who are going to hear one fact, and probably tune me out.  I am a Catholic.  A Papist.  A brain-washed Christian who really does believe in all that crazy stuff about Jesus's body and blood and Eucharist, who is no longer ashamed to say that I strive to be in communion with the Vatican and believe my priest before I question him.  It's about as en vogue as saying you want to obey your husband in your wedding vows.

Why would I start this blog post with that polarizing fact?  Shouldn't I try to lure you in with my siren-song of a lost-gets-found faith journey and THEN spring the big C-word on you?  No.  I don't want you to read a word of this under false pretenses.  You need to know the outcome of this story because I don't want you to waste energy in trying to figure out if you can believe me, if you should pick apart my beliefs, if you should question my salvation, if you will end up at the same destination as me.  I really just want you to hear the story of a person who was lost to church and faith, and how she found her way back.  How I found my way back.  

So, am I speaking for the church or all "reverted" Catholics?  No, I am simply trying to do my best to live this tenet of my faith, quoted in context so you can see that I am taking a little creative license with this post, as I am clearly not suffering because of my righteousness:
"Now who is going to harm you if you are enthusiastic for what is good?
But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them,
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame."  --1 Peter 3:13-16

I was raised in the low-catechism world of post-Vatican II Catholicism.  In layman's terms, I never learned that the Catholic Church had opinions on things, had been recording them and refining them for 2,000 years.  I only learned that Jesus loves me, how to pray the Our Father and Hail Mary, to put my bad feelings into a rock that symbolized Jesus and drop it into a punch bowl of water, to go to Confession, that my First communion was really Jesus's body, and that my Confirmation with the Bishop meant I intended to be a Catholic for the rest of my life.  (I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that at my Confirmation, I was covered in head-to-toe poison oak, but the Bishop anointed me anyway--a real close encounter with a leper experience for him, I'm sure, which he passed with flying colors.  Good on him.)

I never learned that people didn't believe Catholics really loved Jesus.  I didn't know what the rosary was for. I didn't know why people liked the saints.

Let's start at the beginning.  When I was three years old, one day after church the priest put his hand on my head and I looked stunned.  My mom asked what was wrong, and I said "Mom, God touched me."  I thought our little old priest was God. Something really must have cooled off for me in the intervening years of making life miserable during Mass for my mother.  When I was 5 years old, I remember hating Church so much I would lay in bed on Saturday nights and think "I will go to church and kill the priest so I don't have to go to church anymore."  Not a cute story, and yes, we did watch WWF wrestling, but more than dramatic imitation, I really was a very angry little person.  Yes, I am a little ashamed of my 5-year-old self...even now.  But, honesty, huh?

The only other memory I have of that early church experience is our catechism class.  We were handed a little dish of salt and a matching dish of sugar and were told to taste it.  I was angry when they wouldn't let me rinse my mouth out from the salt, and refused to try the sugar.  Oh the symbolism!  Once the teachers took us for a walk around church to observe what was man made and what was God-made.  I proudly raised my hand and said "Cars are God-made."  They gently corrected me, and I argued my case: "God made people, and people made cars, so a car is God-made." I have nothing to learn from these people who couldn't figure this out.  Mic drop.

I lasted a whole year in a Kindergarten taught by nuns.  My mom decided it wasn't a good fit when I came home with three welts on my arm.  My mom went up to school to talk to Sister Justin.  She said she hit me because I wouldn't stop talking.  My mom was like "Yes, that's Jaime, but please do not hit her."  I remember lots of things from that school, but don't remember that.

In third grade, we had moved from our little country church, and were in the suburbs.  I can really only recall from Sunday school that a girl had actually gone on a pilgrimage to a holy site somewhere, and while they were there, her silver rosary chain had transformed from silver into gold.  I thought this was crazy-town, but hey, I saw the rosary myself.  Rosary alchemy is something that comes your way when you go to Europe.  My faith was tarnished somewhat when my silver Irish charm necklace turned gold, too, when I wore it in the shower at a house with well water.

Now, I don't want you thinking that we only experienced faith at church.  My Dad, for instance, told the story of an old-school priest driving a new Caddy to his house as a child (in the 30's).  The priest sat at the table until his mother handed over their grocery money for the week, and scrounged up every penny in the house.  I tried to imagine any of our priests shaking my mother down for her last $20, but couldn't.  My mom said they don't do that anymore because of Vatican II.  Ohhhhhh... huh?  Needless to say, my father only came to church on Christmas and Easter.

My mom, however, busted her hump to get us to Mass and Sunday school for a good portion of our childhood.  She picked our church because the collection baskets were at the entrances and not passed around, the music was pretty good, there were no kneelers, they used pita instead of wafers, and they always had cookies after Mass.  These seemed like good enough reasons to drive 20 minutes to get to church for me, too.  Plus, she could go to the nearby K-Mart while we were in class.  Win-win-win.

Now, my natural penchant for blasphemy, expressed at young age might lead you to believe I was a somewhat bitter, rebellious teen.  In that nerdy sort of way, yes.  I was frustrated and at odds with my dad almost constantly.  But, a youth group retreat after a particularly nasty blow-up led me into a new part of faith.  Instead of faith being something to you should accept, it became something you could feel.  And I had a lot of feelings.  There were night hikes (glowing moss!  Did you know that was a thing?), and prayer circles, and group trust-fall challenges, and did I mention boys from other schools?  There were suddenly Mikes, Steves, and Jims to add to my ever-growing list of crushes.  But on that retreat, I spilled my guts in prayer, and felt God's comfort as a perfect Father.  Something I hadn't known before.  

The best of all was the 11th grade confirmation retreat.  My mom swears it was when all of her girls stopped being rebellious teenagers and returned to her.  It really did change us.  We listened to talks, heard pop music, went on reflective walks in nature, and every single one of us cried like babies.  By the time I was 17, I had found a lot of unhealthy ways to feel the emotions of life.  That retreat was like a lifeline.  

But then I went to college.

The moment I moved into my dorm, it didn't even occur to me to walk the block and a half to go to the Catholic church down the street.  My life had basically fallen apart.  You know that girl who is like the nerdy queen bee in high school who flops so hard in college?  Oh, that was me.  And did I ever flop.  Apparently, a lot of people plan to do something with their lives by the time they get to college.  I planned on going to high school part 2, and to jump on the first thing that sounded interesting.  That happened to be Anthropology. Studying people?  Religions?  Cultures?  Oh, that is so me!

I joined our Catholic student group, Newman.  And I joined the InterVarsity non-denominational group.  I also chain-smoked through three boyfriends in my first semester.  That and the 15 pounds I put on in THREE months should have been my first clue that things were not going well.

In a class called Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion, I probably got the biggest kick in the pants of my whole time in school in sophomore year.  It was taught by my once-beloved anthropology teacher with whom I had a major falling out when I switched majors to Chemistry.  She stood in front of the class and said that Mexican Catholics are polytheistic.  Their "worship" of saints was their way of shucking off the Spaniard white man's oppression and holding onto the gods of their native religions.  I had had enough, and I called her on it.  And she gave me my first A- in an anthropology class.  Maybe she didn't appreciate my detailed explanation of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist on my final exam.

But that small fight gave me the shaky feeling that maybe I didn't know enough to defend my beliefs. The boy I was dating, and planning to marry, was a Presbyterian.  At our formerly Presbyterian college.  And I was kind of Catholic.  I was most involved in singing at Wednesday night non-denominational worship.  And he told me flat out that he would never be Catholic.  But he would switch to some other kind of Protestant denomination to make an effort.  And I was still going to the Newman club.  And I started bringing questions I had to them.  And not in a nice way.  In a snot-faced, "why didn't anyone ever teach me about (aspect of Catholicism I had previously taken for granted)?"  And they would kind of answer me, but also leave me hanging.  I was getting to be the kind of a jerk you wished wouldn't show up any more.  

But non-denominational had never let me down.  They threw out the crap that seemed to be coming between me and my boyfriend.  If it wasn't in the Bible, then it wasn't from God.  I told my family that I wasn't Catholic anymore.  They went ballistic.  "What are you going to do, Jaime, when your sisters are getting their babies baptized in their beautiful white gowns, and you are sitting there knowing your kids missed out?"  I was attending Bible studies.  I went to different churches, and even took communion with them.  I went to a missions conference, and came back feeling very strongly that I was not supposed to be with that guy.

But, I still had my faith-Jesus died for my sins.  And I still went to Wednesday night worship.  And it did save my butt from being an idiot and dating someone else who was wrong for me.  And I still barely read my Bible outside of an occasional Bible study.  I got a leadership position in the Christian Fellowship--prayer leader, which was really not the right place for me.  And I found deeper, lasting friendships.

And then came Left Behind.          

This part is so hinky, I shudder to tell you about it.  But, hey, go big or go home.  I was feeling kind of lost.  One of the guys in our group decided to hold a screening of Kirk Cameron's Left Behind.  I was blown away.  People were disappearing out of their clothes and soaring up into heaven in the Rapture.  And hokey Kirk Cameron was praying to God for salvation and playing covert games with the UN.  Weird, I know.  But, it sealed the deal for me.  How could I have never heard of such a thing in my entire 20 years of being a Christian?  There was one way to take out my frustrations.  It was the lousy, stinking Catholic Church being so busy with their rosaries and robes, and boring homilies no one had the time to tell me about having a personal relationship with Jesus so I wouldn't get Left behind with Kirk Cameron and his terrible acting, praying the words off a Dungeons and Dragons tract the crazy people passed out at the fair (yes, all in one sentence like that).

And like the self-righteous, idiotic 20-year-old I was, I took it home and showed my family.  I know.   As they sat in stunned silence, I  said "this is real.  Did any of you know about this?"  I know.  Current me wants to kick old me and encourage her to stop speaking.  But, my family's response was to declare our Christian fellowship was a cult.  Meh, in hindsight, I gave them compelling reasons to say that.  May my all-encompassing humiliation now be evidence of my true contrition of this loathsome night.

And these next things happened, too.   I am going to drop on you without context, because I just don't remember the events around them.

-At the non-denominational church I was going to, I sometimes wondered if I should present myself at an altar call, just as a kind of insurance policy against not really being saved.

-A Protestant and Catholic friend had broken up because they couldn't come together on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

-I went on a missions trip to Pittsburgh, and felt I had found my people.  But they were all college students like me.  None of them was strong enough to make a whole church.  There really wasn't an adult leading this hugely influential faith community I was a part of (though we did have advisers, who were all lovely people).

-One faith-filled young man was studying Greek and Hebrew, and would decode the context of scripture from its original translation during Bible studies.  And in hindsight, that knowledge he offered us seemed to be the most authentic experience of faith I had during my college years.

-One day during Lent, feeling the internal confusion, I went to the Catholic Church and sat way in the back, in the choir loft.  The entire homily consisted of the priest walking to the middle of the church, picking up the wine and nearly yelling "This is NOT (pause, pause, pause) a SYMBOL!"  And again with the bread, "This is NOT (pause, pause, pause) a SYMBOL!"  Then he sat down.  He was removed from the parish when accusations came to light about sexual abuse.

As you can see, things were coming apart at the seams for me.  Dropping the faith of my childhood for a purer, unfiltered Christianity became the solace I sought.  Protestantism was the solution.

I should also mention that during a good portion of this time, my dad was ill.  I went and found our home parish priest, begging for a grown-up's insight into the rest of eternity.  Begging him to take me seriously.  I stopped him in the hallway and told him that I was worried about my dad's salvation.  He asked me if my dad was baptized.  I said he was.  He told me not to worry.  "He's ok," he said.  I wanted to believe him.  I called him a few weeks later to come administer the Last Rites, and my Dad received that sacrament before his death.  I remember hoping that was enough, because I knew things my dad had said and done that the priest was ignorant of.  He needed deathbed salvation, and he got a sacrament that asked nothing more than a "yes" from him.    

And it seemed like none of it was about God, contrition, or forgiveness.  It was everything my Evangelical friends had warned me about, and I had not offered him enough to know for sure my dad was going to heaven.

And that's when I stopped being Catholic.              



Coming Home on Sundays

At a big family dinner, I have one goal as a cook.  I want everyone to eat.  And not just a nibble.  I want them to come hungry, try everything, take seconds, and talk about their lives, struggles, funny stories, and compliment the food.  I want the food to be homemade and to have taken just a little more effort than someone regularly expends on dinner.  I want everyone to wait to eat until all the dishes have been served and the food has been blessed.  And I want everyone to break into smaller groups for cleanup.  It's not that I can't clean up, it's that we all talk better when we are working on a project.

Yesterday morning, while I was getting Daisy ready for school, I put on a podcast like I usually do.  Music isn't enough to get me up, but learning something generally makes it tolerable.  A friend had recommended Father John Riccardo of Detroit to me, and I politely turned it on, expecting very little from recorded sermons.  He started with a question, and a loaded one at that: Why are you at church today?  What are your expectations of this service?

Was he going to accuse his parishoners of attending under false pretenses?  Tell us that we were selfish for coming to get something for ourselves?  He didn't.  He spoke instead about a kind of miracle that so many of us were attending church when we really expected to get nothing out of it.  And we have needs, but those needs are going unaddressed.  Those most hurt are coming late and leaving early...on purpose. They are lost in life, and lost in church.

I knew that feeling so well.  It perfectly described who I used to be.  So, then I did what any stay at home mom actively nursing a baby with a phone in her hand would do: I asked the same question on Facebook.  In minutes, I had 15 responses and 4 private messages running.  From many different Christian denominations, and one friend who is Jewish.  They kept coming as the day went on, not because I am cool or popular, but because people are hurting. That question--why are you here with me--brings hurt out in unexpected ways.  Those who had an answer were firm in their reasons--the sacraments, the community, the programming.

At its simplest purpose, the church and synagogue have a mission to teach others that God exists, evil has come into the world, and He has a plan for what to do about it.  If our place of worship isn't growing, teaching more, doing more, it is dying.  At least that's how I see it, or have heard it described and agree.

The responses I received show that we ask so much more of our churches, and for better or worse, they ask more from us.  A few ladies mentioned they serve at the exclusion of Sunday worship because other people need it more.  They will catch the sermons online.  The equivalent of getting everyone's plate ready, but eating after everyone else is done.  As a host, that stresses me to no end. If dinner is complex, and requires a kid's table, and has new guests, it is a huge gift to have someone who deals just in hospitality.  While one volunteer thrives in the service, another struggles to give so sacrificially without any acknowledgement of the sacrifice it is to serve on Sundays.

When people are hurt by their church, or feel their needs aren't being met, they express it in the same terms I do when my mom says something that upsets me.  Why is that?  Because I know my mom so well, I think I know who she is intimately, and how she will react in every circumstance, that it's like I AM my mom.  But when the response is less than my idea of perfect, it means I must not know anything about anything.  There is real despair in that conclusion.  It's me saying, yelling, that this is not fair, and life does not make sense, and my mom must not be everything I think she is.

The place that is supposed to define our purpose in life, well it should be in sync with the rest of our life.  And often, it isn't.  The worship service is boring, or just entertainment.  The teaching is amazing, but the expectations on your time are unrealistic for your family.  If all your conversations are superficial, and there is no sacramental aspect, there is no reason for your physical attendance--you can hear the sermon online.  Or the people have closed ranks against you, and searching out a new place when you are running on empty...is simply too exhausting to contemplate.

There are two possible responses for the family rift: my mom is lost and no longer who she once was, or I am lost and no longer understand who my mother is.  Do I believe anything she taught me?

My church is lost and no longer who she once was, or I am lost and no longer understand my faith.  Do I believe in anything?   Why are some people happy in their church and I am so different?  I experience equal parts self-loathing and righteous indignation.

These are the same emotions my friends expressed yesterday when they were no longer in communion with their place of faith.  The reasons were all over the map:
the political leanings of every sermon, 
the pastor who didn't come visit in a crisis, 
the unrealistic expectations of volunteers, 
being afraid of what grief you might uncover sitting in the pews,
hypocrisy of fellow believers,
being loaded with obligations the rest of the week,
wanting quiet time at home,
not experiencing God there,
it doesn't change my faith to be there,
no real sense of community,
it is the same thing every week and I am bored,
having no anonymity, 
being ignored.

These are family grievances.  These are the very individual hurts that seem unresolvable when each side is talking, and look petty to the outsider.  But when you are living them, they consume you. Every moment is spent fighting your side in your head.

Who are the people who never get in these fights?  Goody two shoes sisters who don't think the way you do.  Simple minded brothers who never think for themselves.  Your mom's best friend who always takes her side anyhow.  Well, that's who these people are at first.  After a while, after the anger goes away, and the loss of this relationship becomes a quiet sadness, these people become something worse--strangers.  You no longer know how people who are happy with their church think, what their lives are like, or don't care to be one anymore.  You are a person without a mother, and without a church.  And the company is good.  A new person you meet today is less likely to go to church than they are to go, or to say they are a spiritual person, but without a spiritual home.

But, deep down, that probably feels like a loss.  It did for me.  And not because we were so good about getting to church my whole life.  The people who do go to church or synagogue seem desperate for you to come back.  Instead of feeling nice, it feels like they don't understand your grievances at all.

What I didn't take time to see in this extended metaphor is that my mom is hurting, too.  She is not the same when one of her daughters doesn't check in, when I am too busy (and ticked) to come to visit, when I tell her everything she taught me was too narrow, too small, and not how I think.  A mom is an identity that exists based on a relationship.  Without me, my mom is not the same person. Without my children, even one lost, I am not the same mother.  But as an estranged believer, I cannot deny what I know is right and join back in communion with a church who is simply not on the right track.  This is the dilemma of our separated churches.  We have the freedom, and the burden, of discerning what is doctrinally important, and what answers our church has the authority to answer on behalf of God.

Because if my church is wrong, or I am wrong, where do I find God?  Where do I go to learn more about Him, or go to meet Him?  Should I attend a church where I don't experience Him?  Where I am too much for them--my kids too loud, my questions too bitter, my needs too great?  What if I am the one who needs to grow?  Do I really want to be a part of a church that has changed so much over the years, that I am not challenged by it, because they haven't formed my conscience, but has been formed by mine?  Is there a major problem that I tried to address, and the resolution means I can no longer ethically be a part of that church?  Why am I even here, or why should I even go anymore?

These questions of our earthly and heavenly churches become issues of our faith.  

And if you are hoping I am going to tie this all up in a little bow right now, like I had a plan for what direction this post was going to take before I started writing it, well, then you clearly never watched Lost.  Just like JJ Abrams deceived us all with semi-understandable hatches and human cages with giant fish-cookie dispensers, I have led you into a dilemma I don't have a way to make right for you.

All I can do is tell you why I am a formerly hostile believer who has found a way home.  It's going to take a few posts to tell you my story, so stick around.  I hope there is an answer for you somewhere in my ticked off faith and frustrated surrender that is nothing like a conversion story, but also incredibly like one.  I won't be able to fix things for you, but I promise I can be honest, and not take the easy way out in describing this.  And I promise you are always welcome at this table.