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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.

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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


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I’ve got streaming radio on right now. Mabel just caught a few words of the latest song.

“Christmas, Mommy! Christmas!”

Seven months ago Mabel joined our family. She spoke Amharic, a beautiful language from her birth country. Unlike many 20-month-olds, she already expressed herself well in her native language. Then we came along.

For the first few days in Ethiopia we heard one phrase over and over again, translated roughly to “Hey you!” Wherever we would go, she would holler “Hey, you!” to strangers. I assume she was trying to find her way back to something familiar. Hey, you! Will you take me back? Rescue me from these strange people! Hey, you! Help!

Today, she can sing her own endless version of Jingle Bells. She recognizes lights, Santa, and snow. A new world has opened up. There are a lot of Christmas words to learn! As a former Spanish teacher, I study her language development like it’s a part time job. Every word and concept she discovers is like a newly discovered country. This is an adventure. But it is also a loss. As she fills her language centers with a new language, another one is slowly slipping away. (But that is another post.)

The milestones have continued steadily for seven months.

In the beginning, she had big thoughts to communicate to us, but didn’t have the words for them:

  • I’m scared.
  • You’re scary.
  • Where’s my home?
  • Where are my nannies?
  • Will you feed me enough?
  • Am I safe?
  • I’m all alone now.

We had big thoughts for her, but didn’t have the words for them:

  • Trust us.
  • We will meet your needs.
  • We are not going anywhere.
  • You are safe.
  • We love you.

And most importantly,

  • I will be right back.
  • This will just take a minute.

Yes, I wanted my daughter to feel loved. Yes, I wanted her to know my unwavering commitment to her, but we quickly discovered that the most powerful concept that we needed to communicate was “We will not abandon you.”

We will be here. Even when you can’t see mommy (because she’s in the shower or taking care of George or taking a nap), she will never leave you. Daddy will come back upstairs. George will come home from school. Nobody is really going anywhere.

The first day that Mabel was in our custody, she started using English words. Her linguistic abilities astounded us. By the time we had our first check-in with the social worker at six weeks, she already had fifty words in her vocabulary. Now we can’t even count them anymore. Many two-year-olds have a dozen or so words, and our daughter can now hold a conversation that lasts for several minutes. But one phrase eluded her for months:

I’ll be right back.

By the time an average child has reached 20 months, she has heard “Mommy will be right back” maybe thousands of times. She may not know exactly what the words mean, but she is comforted by this. She goes into daycare, or nursery, or nap time with that phrase on her lips.

But Mabel had no idea what we were trying to say. And those phrases are abstract. “Be right back?” You can’t draw a picture of that. You have to live it, prove it, be it every day over and over and over. But Mabel just didn’t get it.

For five months of Mabel’s life, bedtime was tragic.

For five months, there would be no childcare outside of mommy and daddy.

For five months, church nursery was impossible.

For five months, Mabel clung to us, afraid to be left behind or abandoned.

Then one day in October something changed. One day she was afraid. The next day she trusted. And it was all about “Mommy be right back.” When she learned that phrase she was able to let go and nap. She was able to let go and have a babysitter. She was able to let go and go to Sunday school. She was able to let go of Mommy and find comfort in Daddy’s arms. It became her mantra.

Going to bed, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

Going to church, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

Sending us on a date, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

I thought “Mommy loves you” or “Mommy cares for you” or “Trust Mommy” would be the most powerful concepts in our attachment arsenal, but for now, it’s “Mommy be right back.”

This Christmas, as Mabel sings carols to us, as her eyes light up when she recognizes Santa Claus in pictures, as she tries to figure out the little people in the manger scene, we are filled with tidings of comfort and joy. For a two-year-old, the Good News is about being safe, wanted, loved, fed, and never far from home.

This Christmas, her first Christmas in English, Mabel knows the Good News: Mommy will always be right back.

 

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(Hi everyone. This is Andy, Mandy’s husband, and she’s allowed me to guest post today.)

There’s a song we don’t sing in our household around Christmas. “You better watch out, you better not cry.” Before having kids, I thought that was a slightly weird song. “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.” But now that I’ve got two kids and they’re looking to me to set the tone for Christmas, this song is out. Change-the-radio-station forbidden in our house. We celebrate Christmas as a time where we recognize that Jesus, in some mysterious, ineffable way, is a gift, completely undeserved and unmerited. We celebrate that by participating in the joy of giving gifts to one another. There’s no watching out needed, no need for crying or pouting. Our Santa is more like Saint Nicholas of old than the hyper-organized list-maker of this song.

But now that categorizing fat man is at it again. This time, with elves.

The Elf on the Shelf, if you don’t know, is a creepy little minion of Santa’s who appears somewhere in your house by day to spy on your kids and then disappears to the North Pole every night to report on each child’s naughtiness or niceness. “The Elf on the Shelf is watching you,” the song goes, completely oblivious to the irony of its cheerful melody, “what you say and what you do.”

Think Gestapo for kids.

And at first, I thought I could ignore it. That if I never tried to find the elf, I could turn his sneaky game of hide-and-seek against him and not have to worry about his toxic effect on Christmas. But it was not to be.

They are everywhere.

And that’s when I realized: this isn’t going away. I have to make a stand. Because the Elf on the Shelf represents everything I don’t want to be as a parent. The Elf on the Shelf stands behind me and says “do what he says, or else!” like some two-bit mobster. The Elf on the Shelf teaches kids that when you screw up, you get nothing, and when you do nice things, you get big, unnecessary presents.

In an Elf-on-the-Shelf world, the goal of Christmas is getting stuff. Life is about pleasing a selectively omnipotent being in order to reap a reward of superfluous gifts. Who is this discerning benefactor, you ask? The younger kids think it’s Santa; in other words, God. The older kids know that it’s you. Is that how you want your kids to view you? You’re only there to give them good things when they deserve them? You’ll gladly ruin their holiday if their behavior passes a certain arbitrary ratio of naughty to nice? They can have whatever they want as long as first you get what you want?

Then of course you’ll take down the elf after Christmas. And so now—is there anyone watching? Now that the gifts are opened, what’s in it for me?

But in the real world, my kids could do nothing to keep me from loving them. I dare them to find a way for me to stop loving them. Because it will never, ever happen. And I love giving them gifts. I love lavishing upon them ridiculous amounts of toys and games and food and hugs and love. If they punch each other or scream too loud in the meantime, that’s not going to change how much I love to give them good things.

In the real world, this is Advent season, a season about expectation, the expectation of grace, not the expectation of merited favor. Christmas is about God pouring out unexpected and lavish grace upon the least deserving among us. About a surprising and upside-down gospel that takes everything you thought about merit and favor and riches and wealth and turns it on its head.

But in an Elf-on-the-Shelf world, the angels show up to the shepherds only to sit up on the Milky Way and say “The angels in the stars are watching you, what you say and what you do—and God won’t send a Savior if you’re on the naughty list.”

Love, the Scriptures tell us, keeps no record of wrongs.

The Elf on the Shelf’s job is to keep a record of wrongs.

We have an Elf on the Shelf in our house, but he’s blindfolded, to remind our kids that nothing they can do will keep us from the joy we have when we give them good things at Christmas. And more importantly, nothing any of us might do will keep us from the joy of giving gifts to each other. Because it’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake.

My kids are real. My kids are natural. My kids are my own. And yes, they were adopted.

If you are not sure how all those words go together, click here. But beware. As soon as you know about negative adoption language, you will hear it everywhere.

Everywhere.

I didn’t know what positive adoption language was until I read about it. So why would I expect family and friends and strangers to know what it is and how to use it?

At first I got shivers whenever I heard an insensitive phrase or a negative term. I felt like I needed to be outraged at these offenses if I were to actually represent adoptive parents well.

Now I’ve finally come to the point in my adoptive parenting journey where I choose not to be offended by lack of knowledge. If someone just doesn’t know any better, then they probably mean no harm by a stray comment. It’s my job to respond in a mature, life-giving way.

So when these situations occur, I laugh. I educate. I ignore. I blow it off. I stay calm.

I don’t get angry.

Here’s why:

My kids do need to know that we will only speak respectfully of others. They also need to know that their daddy and I will protect them from verbal abuse. But they also need to know how to have grace for those who just don’t have a clue. We won’t stand by when others are ridiculed, shamed, stereotyped or belittled, but we won’t do that to ignorant people either.

My List

Here are a few gems from our lives so far:

  • When are you going to have some children of your own?
  • Do you have any heart conditions or cancer in your family history? (a nurse asked me at a wellness check up for my Ethiopian daughter)
  • Is that your daughter? She..um..looks like you.
  • Your kids are so lucky to have you.
  • I can’t believe someone could ever give a child away. Look at him, he’s so beautiful.
  • Do you run a daycare?

I left out the racial observations that our transracial family has experienced. That’s a different topic, and different lessons can be learned there. There is a lot of emotion out there on all sides of transracial adoptive families. But our concerns remain the same: Protect our kids. Respond to others with love and patience.

What will you do with your list?

You adoptive parents probably have a list like mine. If you have older kids, you probably have a long list. And the offenders probably didn’t know any better. What will you do with your list? Will you grow bitter and cut people off? Or will you laugh on the inside and educate on the outside?

When we concern ourselves with policing everyone else, we lose the point of the list. There are many words and phrases that are hurtful, but our job is to monitor our own mouths. The list of positive adoption language is meant to teach us how to frame our own adoption experiences in healthy positive ways, not to fuel our fire to become offended by someone’s well-intentioned attempt to connect.

When we do our part, choosing our words carefully and educating others, we create a space for freedom, expression, and reflection. I would rather engage in a conversation spurred by the question, “Are those kids yours?” than scowl at every curious passerby. Every ignorant question is an opportunity to share love and inspire others to do the same.

What comments and questions have you heard? How did you respond? How do you discern the difference between ignorance and negativity?