George visits Lake Michigan for our first cold beach trip in 2008.

Today the Meisenheimers joined thousands of other Michiganders in a bizarre regional phenomenon. Michiganders go to the beach in June.

June weather is cold. Not warm.

But this is our sixth Michigan summer, and we have learned that Michiganders do summer right. If you only have three months when it cannot possibly probably won’t snow, you learn to soak in every moment of lukewarm weather.

Yes, today all four Meisenheimers went to the beach on a day when the air temperature and the water temperature only added up to 135. The sand was slightly warm, the water was ice cold, but we did our duty. We hoola-hooped in the surf, we built sand castles, we walked along the beach, and one of us even went under water. It was five hours of bliss. Watching our six-year-old shriek and giggle in the waves, guiding our two-year-old to explore the beach for the first time*, laughing with my husband as we tried to hoop in the water, listening to Lake Michigan and to all the people having fun—this cold beach day is a regional quirk that I am happy to enjoy.

I’m thankful.

But I’m not thankful for the sunshine, the lake, the sand toys, the flip flops, the salty snacks, the breeze, the sunglasses, the water, the park, or our rockstar parking place.

I’m thankful that whether the perfect Saturday comes together or not,

these three people that walk around me and sit in my car and eat my food,

these three beautifully different voices that drive me bonkers on any given day,

these three pieces of my heart,

are my family.

And whether we became a family because we happened to be at the top of a waiting list, or whether we found each other because God hand-picked us to be together, it doesn’t matter. The miraculous thing is not whether God made it sunny today just for us or whether we got a great parking spot or whether we have the perfect day at the beach or whether we were carefully selected to be a forever family. The miraculous thing is that we all love each other. Four people from all over the world in one family and we find love every day.

I am thankful for that.

 

 

*Mabel had been to the beach during the first month of her life here in the U.S., but she never left her towel. Last year, she was afraid of sand and water.

Can you see the little person?

Last Mother’s Day was rough, my friends.

I was in Ethiopia, consoling a tiny girl over another loss, another change in caretakers, another new language. Last Mother’s Day my little baby was robbed of the people who loved her at her second orphanage. Last Mother’s Day all three of us, Mom, Dad, and brother, were witnesses to grief beyond our informed expectations.

Oh, boy. Did she grieve.

I felt sorry for myself last Mother’s Day. I felt sorry for myself when I turned 32 two days later and we were too shell-shocked to do anything fun. I felt sorry for myself that everyone asked about how Mabel was doing, but nobody asked what our trip to Ethiopia was like.

I love to answer questions. Sometimes people just don’t ask the right questions. For example, nobody has ever asked me what Mabel did when she first came into our home. It’s fascinating, really.

After two days of travel, crying on airplanes, suffering through new foods, seat belts, we set her down in a suburban home and let go. She looked around for a second. She saw a toy on the floor. Then another, then another. She picked up the toys. She made a pile. She went back and forth and back and forth collecting toys and putting them in a pile. Have you ever watched a bird gather straw to build a nest? Her pile grew and grew. She wasn’t quite frantic, but she was not at ease. This was her first experience with abundance. Enough. Extra. Plenty. Excess.

Mother’s Day week was interesting. But hard.

Mabel and I share a row on Ethiopian airlines. This is one of the quieter moments.

She clung to me, but she didn’t know me. She needed me in the room in order to fall asleep, but nothing I could say or do would ease her pain. Selfless friends brought meals and we surfaced from our underworld of grief-sharing to enjoy just a taste of normalcy. She picked up a new language like a master linguist, but there were no words to convince her that the food supply was safe, or that Mom and Dad would not leave her alone, or that there weren’t more changes in her future.

I think she spent the first few months wondering when the nightmare of abandonment would end.

She cried in her sleep constantly.

My 32nd birthday was rough, my friends.

Now I am turning 33. Sunday is Mother’s Day. Things are better. We cook for ourselves (sometimes). She doesn’t make piles of toys around here anymore. We can close the fridge without two hours of sobbing. She can sleep peacefully, knowing that Mommy and Daddy will be back. She can identify our family as Mom, Dad, George and Mabel. She has mixed up Ethiopia and everything she knows here and cannot distinguish much in her memory right now. She is starting to share her feelings, although that is coming very slowly.

This Mother’s Day I remember the grief, I bask in the healing, and I am relieved that in this painful process we continue to find restoration and growth in all four of us.

Happy Mother’s Day to those of you in the trenches of grief. Next year may or may not be better, but it will be different.

images

We are homeschooling and these days our curriculum is Batman.

This week Two-Face investigated the dissolving abilities of different substances in water. If he could find the perfect ingredient to dissolve, he could push Batman into the vat of chemicals and fry his face. Does mustard dissolve? No. Does creamer dissolve? In hot water, yes.Does sugar dissolve? Yes. Perfect.

Batman loves to fight for justice using his abacus. If Batman can add two vats of acid and five dynamite sticks, he can solve a crime.

But tonight Batman failed us.

Sometimes George and I like to create our own bedtime stories. We fight the bad guys and we solve the crimes and then we say goodnight. And tonight I thought we could do a little more with that. I thought we could do a little bit of Theraplay with our favorite superhero. But tonight Batman would not, could not participate in Theraplay.

My terrific plan involved teaching one of the characters a little bit about making mistakes. In everyday activities, George reveals his trauma-based shame whenever he makes a mistake or fails in some way. I decided that we could use the superheroes to explore this.  I asked George, “Do you think it would be possible for the Joker and Two-Face to learn something tonight?”

“No, mom. No.”

“I mean, do you think that we could teach them something tonight? Maybe we could choose something like patience or “try, try again” and then teach it to them?”

“No, mom.”

“Why not?”

“They are cri-mi-nals.”

Later after we had  agreed that Robin could, indeed, learn something new, I played Robin:

“Batman, I’m really discouraged. I never get to be in charge. And I make so many mistakes. Will I ever get to be like you?”

“Robin, Alfred is making you the perfect weapon that will help you.”

“But Batman, I still may make mistakes with this new weapon.”

“No, Robin, the weapon will be so good that it will make all the good choices for you.”

“But, Batman! I want to be a superhero like you. What can I do to be as good as you are?”

“Your suit is old. You can get the perfect suit. You can get the perfect car. You can get the perfect weapons, and then you will be as good as me.”

“What about practice, Batman? Should I practice so that I can be a great superhero?”

“No. You don’t need to practice.”

This isn’t working. Batman is too perfect. The Joker is too bad. In this world, nobody changes. Nobody grows. Nobody learns. A good guy makes good choices. A bad guy makes bad choices.

Huh.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Interesting.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Oh no.

Bad guys make bad choices.

Aha. You think you’re a bad guy.

Last week Andy and I returned from an incredible parenting conference that focused on parenting for kids who have experienced trauma. This conference is especially meaningful to me because the 2011 conference exposed me to the reality of the trauma that is involved in infant adoption. The fears, shame, and resulting rage that I was observing every day in my preschooler were not only explainable, they were common. They were “normal” (ha!). And if I changed my parenting style, we could begin to heal these broken places, and find connection.

When you sit in a room full of parents who love children of trauma, you catch a whiff of heaven. You breathe out the painful truths of foster care and adoption that you can’t tell anyone else, and you breathe in empathy and hope. You look around at a circle of people who are loving children back from the brink of death, and you think to yourself, “Do I even belong here? My issues aren’t as bad as hers.” But then Christine looks you in the eye and says, “Just because you have stage 1 cancer doesn’t mean you don’t belong in the cancer support group.” And you bask in the acceptance and love that you don’t find anywhere else. This is heaven.

At the conference we learn about the loss these kids feel at the core of who they are. They are skeptical, fearful, angry, self-loathing, desperate little guys who will climb in your lap and then kick you in the teeth. But all behavior has meaning, so we learn to speak their language and truly listen. Listen. Listen.

Tonight I was listening. I had hoped it would be a learning experience for George. Batman was supposed to teach George that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Instead, I listened.

I heard you, George. You think you’re a bad guy. You think you can’t change. You think everybody else is perfect. You believe that if you had the perfect ‘x’, you’d be able to make good choices.

I hear you, buddy. I’m listening.

 

P1000062

This is not a parenting post.

In February of 2007, our lives changed when we travelled to Guatemala to adopt George. If this were a parenting post I would talk about all the challenges of adjusting to life with a 9-month-old. I would describe the journey of getting to know him and his personality, one day at a time. I would describe what it is like to fall in love with a stranger from a distant place. But this isn’t a parenting post.

In February of 2011, we travelled to Ethiopia to meet Mabel for the first time. If this were a parenting post, I would write poetry about the moment we first saw her in that institutional crib, next to all the other babies, sleeping deeply. I would tell you of the pain of that day, mingled with hope. How we watched her shut down in fear as she sat with us for the first time. Then I would describe the moments when we discovered that we were actually connecting with her little heart.

But this isn’t a parenting post.

February brings me back to these moments. When I step into those memories, they are not always “mom memories”. I look at the pictures and I see myself and think, “You have no idea. You have no concept of how your life will change.” No regrets, just reflection.

Our own worst enemies?

In premarital counseling, my husband and I took some personality tests and belief tests so that the counselor could prepare us for potential pitfalls. Our results on the “Impulsivity” measurement alarmed her. Both of us were off-the-charts in our propensity to make quick, impulsive decisions. She warned us that this could result in a hazardous relationship if we didn’t get some common sense and slow down.

She was probably right, in the beginning at least. Our pet history, our moving history, our job history, our church history, our faith history all reflect this impulsive readiness for change and adventure. We moved six times in the first seven years of marriage. We have had every pet available legally in the United States. (Well, we never had a snake, but I would have considered it if there were a needy snake on my doorstep.) We bought a timeshare.

Yes, we owned a vicious parrot who tried to eat my mom’s face. Yes, we painted apples and school houses all over our first rental place. Yes, we did our part when George W. Bush asked Americans to shop—we bought a new car. But somewhere in that spontaneous fervor to experience life without calculation, our impetuous decision-making met our dreams and some amazing things happened. Somewhere in that excitement, we took some risks that have enriched our lives abundantly. Pain and trauma accompany those risks, but they are worth every tear shed, every sleep interrupted, and every heartbreak.

Whitney-Houston-Bodyguard

I laugh when I hear college students reminiscing over the 2000’s. Their eyes get misty when they think about Britney Spears’s pop peak, the first season of American idol, their first election (Bush v Kerry!), or midriff-bearing tops paired with thong underwear. I have no sentimentality for the decade after 9/11. That’s when the world grew up. Or at least I did.

The genius over at xkcd says that an American tradition is “anything a baby boomer did twice.” His chart there on comic #988 satirically shows how baby boomers have defined what Christmas songs we all find nostalgic. Golden Oldies stations play their music, themed restaurants cater to their memories of what it meant to be a teenager, and the decade that appears most ideal happens to be the 1950’s.

But thanks to VH1 and the internet, Gen X has defined a new “Golden Oldies” category: anything that happened in the decade in which you went to junior high and high school. Although I was alive through the 80’s, nostalgia begins for me around 1989 and ends somewhere around 1999. This is when everything special went down.

This morning I was rocked by the news of Whitney Houston’s death. Not only was she a singularly miraculous singer, not only did she break racial boundaries, create the modern pop diva, and break records selling records, not only did she sing a ballad that still stops people in their tracks with its a cappella introduction, she broke my heart in 1993. And for this Gen X middle schooler, that was everything.

I was sitting in Ms. Kahn’s 8th grade Spanish class at Grisham Middle School in Austin, TX. I was in the front row. It was seat work time. Sophia, an African American in my class, asked the teacher if she could put on a tape. Yeah, a cassette tape. And I remember the way my heart broke when those first few notes came out of that raspy tape player. I knew the song because I knew Dolly Parton. I knew it as a country whine and I loved it. But this, this was new. This was life-changing. This was different.

I can’t hyperbolize this moment because it was historic in my musical, social, and cultural education. Until 1993, my music exposure had not included gospel music. Southern gospel, yes. CCM, yes. Country, yes. But this? This must be what heaven sounds like. I had never heard anything like it.

That day in class I was so moved by what this woman’s voice could do with such a familiar song, that my eyes welled up with tears, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Even now, as I’ve participated in gospel choirs, familiarized myself with the gospel greats, memorized ballads from Celine, Cristina, and Mariah, I still drop everything when I hear that song. It’s magical. It’s miraculous. It’s a moment that moves beyond nostalgia for me.

Once in a while as we contemplate the moments of our Golden Oldies decade, we realize that some of the things we experienced were important. There is something more life-changing about I Will Always Love You than alternative rock, Doc Martens, the tv show Friends, or anything else I miss about the 90’s.

My good friend put this status up today on Facebook:

In 1992 my family got our first CD player. I walked into Peaches record store in Oak Park and what was my first cd purchase: Whitney Houston’s 1987 “I Want to Dance with Somebody.” Loved her! On a funny note, my brother picked “Criss Cross.” Fail

Criss Cross brings back nostalgic feelings for all the children of the 90’s (Jump! Jump!). But yeah, we just chuckle about that. And Hammer pants. And sky-scraper bangs. They are sentimental things, but they don’t really stick with us.

Whitney gave me a window into another culture, another musical expression, another group of people that I didn’t really understand. Whitney’s version of that song was so powerful that it broke my heart that day. When it comes to music, I feel like I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to find that again.

I may be crying around the house today because she represented my youth, but this time it’s more than that. Her voice transcends nostalgia. She was historic. She changed everything.

And for that, I will always love her.

 

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 This is the latest in a series of small group studies that I have written for the church we attend. The assignment comes from the book of Ruth.

 

Uncover

 

Ruth: Week 4

Begin by reading Ruth 3:1–18

My Old Lady

I was really proud of being a teacher, so when I found myself at home in my pajamas on the first day of school in September, I felt like a nobody. I had lost my identity. I was profoundly lost—with no number 2 pencils. I had never had a September without number 2 pencils.

I had quit my teaching job too early and moved to a new town too soon. We thought our adoption would be completed that summer and I would become a full-time mom, but it didn’t happen. Now I was in a new town with no job. I dealt with this loss by playing video games, calling old friends, and listening to sermons online in our basement. Basically, I became a hobbit. If I couldn’t be a teacher or a mom, I might as well go live underground.

But then I met my next-door neighbor, Dorothy. Dorothy’s husband had died over the summer. After sixty years of marriage, Dorothy also felt profoundly lost.

My first visit with Dorothy lasted three hours and she cried the whole afternoon. From that moment until we moved two years later, we talked every day, sometimes several times a day. Not only did we talk, but she called our home often asking for small favors, chores, tasks. I changed lightbulbs. I cooked simple things. I reached things on high shelves. We went to breakfast at McDonald’s once a week. We went grocery shopping once a week. We priced items for her estate sale. We went to get her an eye prescription and new glasses. I listened. And listened. And listened. And listened.

Dorothy wore me out.

I was so generous to Dorothy. I would dutifully put on some jeans and go fix things in her house as if I were a benevolent fairy helping the poor widow next door. But it turns out, when I wasn’t helping Dorothy or listening about life with her husband, I was moping about not having an identity anymore. I was missing school life. I was smelling school supplies at Walmart. I was practicing my new life as a hobbit. I felt pathetic.

Later we moved again, we finally brought home our son, and my sense of loss returned. Parenthood didn’t save my from my identity crisis. Dorothy did. As soon as she was gone and I was a mom, I began searching for a new identity. and once again, I felt pathetic. I had thought I was saving Dorothy, but all along Dorothy was saving me.

Ruth the Moabite is a pitiful figure. She is from the wrong side of the tracks, she is a widow, and she has no wealth to her name. And she is bound to her former mother-in-law. This girl has baggage.

Boaz stands in utter contrast to Ruth the Moabite. He has assets, he has the right bloodline, and he has a good reputation. From here the story reads quite simply. Ruth presents both her loyalty and her great need before Boaz. He chooses to take up his responsibility as kinsman-redeemer with great respect and adoration for this poor woman. Boaz saves the day and the rest is history.

When we focus on the acute details of Ruth’s life, this appears to be true. Ruth and Naomi will not survive well without a kinsman-redeemer. When Ruth presents herself to Boaz and uncovers him, she is executing a cunning, strategic, desperate plan. This act of vulnerability is a cry for help in a frightening situation. Ruth does need a savior.

But take a step back. Examine the story as part of the beautiful narrative of redemption that the scriptures paint for us. An extraordinary series of events occurs, bringing a foreigner into Boaz’s bloodline. Ruth the Moabite, this outcast, this widow, becomes part of Israel’s story. Ruth comes to Israel and says, “Take me in,” and a King is born. How does this happen?

Her redemptive work begins with Naomi. She pledges to journey with Naomi away from her homeland. She commits herself to Yahweh and Yahweh’s people. We’ve explored the idea of hesed, calling it “the kind of love given at great cost to the one who gives it. Hesed is love that willingly puts itself at risk for another.” Ruth gives us a small glimpse of the kind of love we will see when Jesus arrives, hundreds of years later. She gives up the life she knows to become an alien in a foreign land. Much like Emmanuel “God with Us” of the New Testament, Ruth promises to be with Naomi until death separates them. Naomi now has a companion and a hope for the future.

When Ruth and Naomi hatch the plan to secure their place with a kinsman-redeemer, the story begins to get murky with nuance and subtlety. Scholars debate “Did they or didn’t they?” in shelves of commentaries and sermons about the Hebrew story of Ruth. Did “feet” really mean “feet”? Were “wings” really “wings”? Would moral and chaste Ruth have truly given sexual favors in exchange for a kinsman-redeemer? Was this old guy able to have sex at all? Some scholars and students of the book of Ruth feel compelled to defend Ruth’s honor. Many commentaries devote several pages to defending Ruth’s chastity. Not Boaz’s. Just Ruth’s. They say that this pure, sweet woman never would have lowered herself to fornication, that the night was a lovely picture of restraint and unconsummated passion. She is a heroine of the Scriptures. She could not have seduced Boaz that night.

But the language is sexually charged and explicitly ambiguous. We know that Naomi and Ruth were in a desperate situation. We know that Ruth was loyal and devoted to Naomi and would sacrifice her life for this friendship. We know that Ruth had no male relatives to defend her honor, which left her vulnerable, but also made her a free agent.

Carolyn Pressler writes, “Unlike Boaz’s ancestress Tamar, who risked capital punishment for the sake of perpetuating her husband’s lineage, Ruth was not in danger of legal punishment. Biblical law defines sexual offenses as violations of the rights of a woman’s father, husband, or in certain cases, father-in-law or brother-in-law over her sexuality.” Ruth has no father, husband, father-in-law or brother-in-law. But in spite of the ambiguous language and cultural context, we still don’t know what happened between Ruth and Boaz that night.

But it doesn’t really matter. Sex is a distraction from what is happening here. Her story does not depend upon her chastity. Her story does not depend upon her gentile-ness. Her story does not depend upon her beauty, her wealth, her femininity or her class. Her story depends upon her willingness to be vulnerable and loyal in the face of great fear and instability. She knows that Boaz might deal with her harshly. He might take advantage of her. He might rescind her gleaning privileges. Her life is at stake. But she humbles herself, peals back his “covering,” lies at his “feet” and takes refuge under his “wings.” We don’t know exactly what she does that night.

But we do know that she is very brave.

Saved by the Saved

In this act of self-exposure, Ruth offers herself up to Boaz’s mercy. But he is not the only savior in this story. Ruth has brought hope to Naomi’s household. Naomi praises new hope in the form of Ruth’s first-born son:

“Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a family guardian. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”

Now the hero shifts one more time. He is not Boaz. He is not Ruth. He is a tiny baby. And in this new spring of life we find resurrection. We find hope. We find salvation. For the hearer of this story, they don’t picture a helpless, crying, probably annoying baby, but they see the grandfather to King David.

The story of Ruth is bathed in the larger narrative of all of scripture. Helpless savior, hope of the world. When we read chapter 3, full of all of its sexual tension and steamy romance, we must remember that Ruth may be a humble, desperate maidservant, but she will also embody a powerful message that underscores the story of God: Love knows no outsiders. This idea weaves  itself seamlessly into the lineage of King David and therefore, Jesus, pronouncing to Jews and Gentiles that we are all God’s children, all part of the grander story. It would be hundreds of years before Peter would see the sheet of animals lowered before him in a vision in Acts 10, hundreds of years before Jewish Christians would worship alongside Gentile Christians. Hundreds of years before Pentecost, when the languages of the nations became one under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yet if we dig deep into the lineage of Jesus, King David, and the story of Israel, we see a woman who proved the ever-expanding love of God. Ruth was the good news before the good news arrived.

My two children are adopted—both from faraway countries. Although their birthmothers were living, they were unable to provide for their children’s needs, so they relinquished these children to orphanages. We adopted one in 2007, one in 2011.

Often when people encounter our family they say things like,

“Oh, she is so lucky to have you.”

“He is so blessed to have you two as parents.”

“What you do is a real ministry to those kids. Imagine what their lives would have been like without you.”

I know why people think this way. My children come from desperate situations, surrounded by disease and destitution. The 143 million or so orphans on earth right now suffer most often from a lack of nurture, a lack of education, a lack of basic food, water, and shelter, and a lack of identity. Abandoned because of AIDS, poverty, war, famine, drug abuse, and/or cultural pressures, these children need homes. We adopted our children because we felt that the great need gave us no other choice.

How naive.

This is no one-way transaction. In fact, we are often surprised by the realization that these powerless, victimized, institutionalized kids have the power to save us. They are Jesus in bare feet with parasites and big, beautiful eyes. We are the lost ones. As I spend my days wiping noses, changing diapers, and being as therapeutic as I can, I often forget that they have come to bring the good news of resurrection and hope to our home. Without them we would be adrift in a sea of self-centeredness and navel-gazing.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that he will come to us incognito:

“‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

The very people we seem to be saving are actually saving us.

Ruth the Moabite may seem like an unlikely ancestor for the Messiah. But the common thread of hesed links the stories of Ruth and Jesus more powerfully than any bloodline ever could. Ruth the Moabite left her homeland so that she could walk with Naomi and help her find a new life in Israel. Emmanuel, God with Us, made himself weak in order to walk among us and show us the way. Paul described Jesus in a beautiful poem in Philippians 2:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human being,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Ruth was not perfect. She was not Jewish. She was not married. She was not wealthy. She was a woman. But she was made from the same dust as we all are. She will live and die breathing the same air that we all breathe. In spite of her lowly place in this ancient tale, she bravely places herself in a defenseless situation out of love and devotion. And she risks her safety and reputation for the salvation of her family.

When we find ourselves valuing people by their assets, their background, their rank, their gender, their sexuality, or their citizenship, we find ourselves in contrast to the narrative of Scripture. Boaz could have looked at this poor Moabite and rejected her, based on all of these qualifications and his own Jewish upbringing. But he recognized the eternal spark in her, the hesed, that reflected the very image of Yahweh, the God who loves an underdog. God’s story regularly takes a weaker vessel, a “least of these” candidate, and saves the world. Who is saving you today?