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One of the most terrifying experiences I had as a child happened in the parking lot of a San Antonio McDonald’s. I was in the 7th grade. My family had just finished breakfast and we were leaving for our yearly trip to Six Flags. My sister and I got in the car and a man came up to my dad and started asking him for money. My dad held out a dollar, but the man started following my dad around the car, snarling at him. I didn’t know whether to lock the car door to protect my sister, or to leave it unlocked to allow my dad to hop in. I could just hear my dad saying “Jesus loves you, Man!” over and over again as he circled the car. Eventually a McDonald’s employee came out and shooed the man away and everything was fine. But I wasn’t. I was trembling with fear and obsessed about the incident for a full year.

One of the understated elements of living in a city of 8 million is that the sheer volume of people that we encounter every single day produces more experiences with humanity than the average suburbanite will have in a month or several months. My kids have observed more people in their two years here than I had observed in my whole adolescence, perhaps. They have seen people talking to themselves, they have seen people asking for money, playing music, speaking different languages, caring for strangers, and screaming at each other. They have seen people litter. They have seen people fall asleep after a long day. They have seen famous people, tourists, families that look like ours, and families that don’t. I am pretty sure that they will see some scary things. But something about the urban experience makes it worthwhile. Seeing the depth and breadth of humanity builds both empathy and street smarts. In some miraculous way, we are able to love more and discern better. That is a gift.

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Last week Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece about Millennials leaving the evangelical church. Young people are finding faith outside the glossy café atmosphere of the latest hip church. They are reading Peter Rollins, Rob Bell, and Jay Bakker, and attending churches with smells and bells. They care about justice, the environment, equality and simplicity.

But what does that mean for our children?

A few years ago a friend said to me that he didn’t trust any Sunday school to teach his children about Jesus. I was horrified. But what about all of the well-meaning people? What about the essential Bible stories? What about the Christian community? I dismissed his feelings of frustration and focused on convincing him to bring his kids to church.

Years later I apologized.

I wonder if he and I have the same frustrations now. I am now a children and youth minister at a mainline progressive church. There are things about my experiences in the evangelical movement that are a treasure to me, but there are some things that I am ready to abandon:

1. White Jesus 

White flannel Jesus represents the Ugly to us. White Jesus represents a faith that is image-conscience and science/history adverse. White Jesus is usually accompanied by white dolls in the nursery and white families in all the books—especially the Bible storybooks. When the only people of color at your church are people on your missionary wall, what does that teach children? We raise money for the poor brown people. I am ready for a colorful Sunday school.

2. Accepted Jesus This Morning

Don’t tell us that our three-year-old accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior this morning. For so many reasons. Let’s name a few. This is not appropriate for her stage of child-development. This is not theologically responsible. You just added Jesus to the unmitigated, indiscernible list of Santa, Pretty Princess, Abraham Lincoln, and Daddy. And like Santa, he knows that you’ve been naughty.

3. Hello and Welcome to Consumerland

We don’t want to drop our kids off into a sensory overload extravaganza of color, lights, music, and fun prizes.

4. Our Kids Are Special

At our local public school we can find people who care enough about including everyone to adjust the environment, hire aides, turn down the music, and accommodate for all abilities. We are ready for the church to go after the one little sheep who needs a little extra help.  We are excited about churches that have programs for our special kids.

5. Bible Heroes? Not For My Kid.

This discussion has already gained some traction. We don’t want to see a mural on the wall that is based on mass genocide via a worldwide flood. We don’t want our kids to come out of Sunday school with a coloring page about a person that we would never allow near our children. The events in the Bible are not cartoons. When we present them as cartoons we replace the depth and meaning with a moral that is styled after “Aesop’s Fables.” This is not proper use of the Old or New Testament. Sure, teach my child about the Bible, but think about the story first. What is it really saying? What did it mean then? Is God the only worthwhile character in the story? Then let’s call God our Bible hero/heroine. The rest are just people like us, sometimes worse.

6. Cry Rooms

Okay, so we like cry rooms if we are breastfeeding or if our toddler just needs to sing ABC’s at the top of his lungs. But the point is, we believe that children should feel welcome in church. And I don’t mean that children should feel welcome to sit still. Children should feel welcome to squirm, wiggle, draw, process, sing, dance, and move around and visit friends and family. This is best for their learning styles, and this is best for the learning styles of adults. If we were to cater to the kinesthetic learning styles of children, adults would actually learn more. More about this in another post. Bottom line: stop making parents feel like pariahs for our children’s normal, age-appropriate behavior.

7. The B-I-B-L-E

We love the Bible. We want our kids to love the Bible. It may seem counter-intuitive to ask churches to stop teaching our kids the Bible, but for real. Stop.

But seriously, stop teaching our kids to take verses out of context. Stop telling our kids to use the “sword of the spirit” in arguments with friends and online. Stop having memory verse contests that reinforce the idea that the Bible is a big book of one-liners. This is the opposite of taking the Bible seriously. This is paganism. This is not Christianity. This is a fortune-cookie religion and we are not buying it.

We want our kids to ask questions, express curiosity, and wonder about everything. We don’t want instantaneous obedience—we know better.

Like I said, I am in this for the long haul. I am in seminary, I am serving kids in full time ministry, I love planning VBS, and I treasure many of my experiences in the church. But we are not raising an army. We are not raising the “future of the church!” We are not raising the latest recruits in the culture war. We are raising children. We want a Sunday school that will help us do THAT.

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.

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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.

 

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Last year I wrote this little thought when I was thinking about submitting daily devotionals to a popular magazine. I changed my mind, so now I share this with you:

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

–Zora Neale Hurston

I left the playroom to throw some clothes into the washer. Just steps away from my two-year-old, I listened for her voice as she played with her dollies…

She came home to us from Ethiopia already a toddler, so we have spent every waking moment within a few feet of each other, working on our bond. Mabel has known no other caretaker on this side of the Atlantic, besides my husband and me. We do everything together. Everything. 

Our hearts swell when she chooses to get closer to us, and they collapse when she raises her arms up, asking to be held by strangers. One day at the park, she befriended an older gentleman and his two large dogs. Within moments I was coaxing her out of his lap. More bonding. We need more bonding. So my husband and I don’t go on dates. We don’t hire babysitters. The grandparents aren’t allowed to hold their grandchild yet. We’re bonding.

So today as I was flinging clothes into the washer (Little girls add a LOT of laundry to the household!), I strained to hear her babble. I didn’t hear anything from the playroom so I turned to check on her.  At my feet, I found Mabel.  And two dollies and a blanket.  Curled up next to the washer, just being with me.

The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.

–Mother Theresa