Perfect Parenting

IMG_20150803_222019 

My baby girl turned 18 a couple days ago. I wasn’t with her that momentous birth day – a tiny Chinese woman was – a woman who, for whatever reasons, knew she couldn’t keep this precious baby and so made certain the local orphanage would have her so that a nice family could adopt her. I give thanks for that unknown woman’s gift every year. I do distinctly recall the birth day of my other child, and the entire 20+ hours of labor and delivery without drugs. The women who told me that you forget all the pain once you see that little baby must have had epidurals.

Parenting is always an interesting action. For me, it’s been thought-provoking and intriguing to rear one birth and one adopted child. The ridiculous questions I have received about loving a birth child more than an adopted one I have found tiresome and irritating. Can some people really think that small? I know the answer is unfortunately yes, but parenting in these circumstances is so much more compelling than such petty questions.

We live in a society where parenting centers around perfection. An accomplished mother is one who raises the perfect child – the little one whose smiling face fills the facebook pages and instagram accounts, who always has great adventures, whose pictures are filled with the best friends, who is showered with awards and accolades, who is destined to be the greatest success. Isn’t that the mark of a perfect parent? Yet, recent information about college suicide highlights that many students use social media as a way to mask their pain and depression. Parents who beam about the public image of their children are often stunned and surprised that the face does not reflect their child’s reality.

I know I’m not a perfect mother. No one is a perfect parent. There is no perfect individual on the planet. We owe it to our children to be authentic. If we hope they can live with integrity, then we need to model what that means. It does not mean treating a child like one’s best friend, revealing all the minutiae of our feelings and emotions. It does mean sharing honestly, in an age appropriate manner, about the realities of life and what it means to live each day. As much as we might want our children to think we are superheroes, with facebook enviable lives, we need to admit when we make mistakes and when we are wrong. We need to let them know that sometimes life is hard – we can’t always pay the bills, we are betrayed by friends, we have moments of despair. Yet, it is even more important to help them know that whenever we encounter these things, we can pick ourselves back up (usually with the help of our loyal friends), dust off the dirt, and take one step at a time towards the future.

Those smiling faces of the children and young adults on social media need to know that whatever happens, it’s not the end of the world. People aren’t perfect, and we all have difficulties in our lives. Yet, there is a tomorrow.

I know I’m an imperfect mother, and I know my children are not perfect either. They are perfectly wonderful, but one of my goals has always been to help them celebrate their strengths and find ways to work on their weaknesses. I’m thankful for all the years we’ve journeyed together, and hopeful that we can share many more in the future.

Growing Up

945470_10100669394490121_1719016664_nMy mom always said it wasn’t your own birthday that got to you – it was your kids’ birthdays. My little baby boy turned 21 last week. I had a birthday a couple weeks before that, and it really didn’t seem to faze me one way or the other – but looking at the young male adult before me was something different. Like most parents, it seemed just the other day that he was a wild-haired, bright-eyed, rosy cheeked little toddler exploring anything and everything within reach. And now he’s officially an adult. Yes, he still has a little more than a year of college left, and I will do whatever I can to be a support in the coming years as he tries to establish himself, but he is officially an adult.

The next day I had lunch with a former college student of mine. I have been a college minister for almost 17 years, and catching up with former students is one of the true joys in my life. This incredible young woman is in her first year of navigating life beyond college. We discussed how things were and her plans for the future. It’s a truly exciting, but also nerve-wracking, time in one’s life.

As I thought about these two people for whom I care so much making the transition to adulthood, I remembered one of the best known verses of the Bible, found in 1 Corinthians 13:11. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” This letter is written to a community that is terribly divided and fighting over a wide variety of things, both big and small. In many ways, they are acting like immature children. The letter reminds them that when we try to live in God’s Spirit, we grow up. We firmly place childish behavior in the past, and learn to live as mature sisters and brothers.

Now, my brother and I still like to pester each other, even though we are decidedly middle-aged. Sisters and brothers are still sisters and brothers, even when they are adults. They are different. They view the world differently. They engage with others in different manners. They are their own independent people. Yet, no matter how they might differ, a true sister or brother will always be there for the other. While growing up, I could pick on my little brother, but woe be to anyone else who decided to do that.

Growing up doesn’t suddenly mean we have all the answers. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have differences with each other – sometimes very deep divisions. It doesn’t mean that we live in a world of rainbows and happily ever after. It does mean we are mature enough to meet the challenges of the world, and to engage with others in a respectful manner. It’s great to see my son, and my former student, put the childish things of the world behind them, and firmly grasp the things of adulthood. I become so frustrated and discouraged when societal and political leaders act like children and refuse to find ways to work together. One wonders if anything productive can ever come out of our nation’s Capitol anymore. I hope and pray that our church, and our society – both so badly divided and so often childish – can follow the example of the children who are becoming adults in today’s world. And a little child shall lead them.

Raising a Feminist – #HeForShe

with my son atop Beech Mountain

with my son atop Beech Mountain

Every parent has goals for her child. We plan, we dream, we hope. We all know that each child is unique, and there are so many things that parents can’t control. Yet, we know that we provide the core environment. The earliest messages our child receives will stay with her in some form or another, for better, for worse.

I have two fantastic kids. One of my goals has been for them to treat each and every person in a respectful and egalitarian manner. I definitely want my kids to be feminists, and one child in particular received this message on a continual basis. And that child is my son – not my daughter. I always knew that my little white male child could do so very much to change the world for the better. Female feminists can only do so much unless male allies join with them to create systems, societies, and cultural values which treat women and men equally. I have always been thrilled when my son railed against injustice and inequality. As a young boy, he not only began to realize that not all moms were ministers, but his eyes were also opened to the fact that many faith communities would not allow women to be religious leaders at all. During summer employment, he has often had a female contemporary as his supervisor, yet has continually had to steer people to speak to his female supervisor when they assumed he was in charge due to his gender. I am so proud of the young male feminist in my household.

Intelligent young British actor, Emma Watson, was named a United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador a few months ago, and addressed the UN a week ago concerning gender politics. She strongly claimed the word feminist, and initiated the #HeForShe campaign. She spoke eloquently about the need for men to claim feminism and to take action combatting inequality.

Since the speech, Watson has since joined a long-line of self-proclaimed feminists who have dealt with backlash. Nasty twitter comments, a threat of leaked personal photos, and even comments about her attire while addressing the UN (which was both professional and stylish) have emerged.

Cultural misogyny is rampant today. The media has finally begun to highlight the NFL’s lackadaisical treatment of its stars who assault and abuse women. Sexual assault on college campuses is finally receiving the attention it deserves. In areas of professional sports and frat boy culture which suggests women are only important as decorative ornaments or means for a man’s pleasure, it’s vital that real men stand up and speak out strongly against these assumptions. Women are created in the image of God. They should be treated with respect, dignity, and an open mind which never limits who they are called to be.

My teenage daughter asked me if I had seen Emma Watson’s speech. I responded in the affirmative, and we talked about the content for a while. I asked her, “Do you call yourself a feminist?” She gave me the look of incredulity that teenage girls own, and responded, “What else would I be?” I’m thrilled that both my kids – a young woman and a young man – would respond to that question in the same way.

The Other Mother

10461617_10202703724454274_2935416337836792656_n

My lovely daughter recently celebrated her 17th birthday. On each birthday, I awake with one thought in my head, “Dear God, please help her other mother know that she is healthy, happy, safe and well-loved.” We adopted Ava from China when she was 9 months old, so a different woman gave her birth. A different woman nourished my daughter in her womb for several months. A different woman then made certain she would be taken care of at an orphanage, until a new family could give her a home. We will never know why she couldn’t keep her little girl. It was probably due to financial reasons – there is a heavy tax on families who have more than one child. Yet, there could have been health concerns or other causes that led this Chinese woman to give up this beautiful baby girl.

Ava’s orphanage was a nice, clean facility in southern China. It was more than obvious she had been well loved during her few months there. A number of elderly who had no family to care for them also lived at the orphanage. During the few days we toted Ava around China, she lunged for just about every gray-haired woman she saw, so we imagined they gave her a great deal of attention as well. (Wouldn’t it be great if we could combine child care and retirement communities in our country? Think of all the great benefits to everyone involved!) Over the years, we have sent pictures and letters back to the orphanage. I know they post them on a board, and it is my hope that Ava’s other mother has been able to come by and see how her little girl is doing.

It might seem strange to start my child’s birthday each year with a prayer for her other mother, but I can never forget this stranger. Without her, and this incredible gift of life she gave us, I wouldn’t have my daughter. And I certainly can’t imagine life without her. One of my favorite passages from the Bible is found in Psalms 139:13 – “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” While Ava was being formed in her other mother’s womb, God had a plan for her. Our family planned and prepared for her arrival, well before we even knew who she was. Six months before we brought Ava home (and certainly long before we know who our daughter would be), our 3 year old son offered this prayer at Thanksgiving Dinner, “God, please bless my little sister and help her have strong, healthy bones.” The entire extended family was too choked up to offer much thanks beyond that ourselves. On different sides of the globe, various people prepared and waited for the arrival of this tiny babe, and then cared for her until she could be brought to her permanent home.

Studies show that many adoptive children are very curious about birth parents, some even to the extent that they search out information or have difficulty coming to terms with it. I imagine I would have been this way if I were in those shoes. Yet, Ava – for all her curiosity – seems perfectly content in our family. A little over a year ago, I was in a café with her and two of her friends who were also adopted. The other girls were talking about not always getting along with their mom. Ava said, “My mom and I get along great. We don’t argue. We’re really close because we’re so much alike.”

I didn’t cry in front of them, but I wanted to. For so many years, I had focused on the difference – between a petite Asian girl and a big blond Amazon, between a well-rounded athlete and a serious scholar, between a rather chill teen girl and a dramatic one – we had seemed so different in my eyes. I always thought perhaps she was more in the mold of the other mother.

Yet, perhaps she is also in the mold of her mom, or Ma Mere, as she sometimes calls me.

Sowing Bountiful Blackberries

DSCN0649

Blueberries are my favorite food, even though people close to me might be surprised I didn’t claim chocolate for that coveted spot. Blackberries come in a close second. I try my best to eat seasonally, so every summer I overload on blueberries. Blackberries are so much more expensive that I only limit myself to a couple containers at the Farmer’s Market during July. Four years ago a neighbor passed along a few cuttings from her thriving blackberry bushes, and my husband transplanted them alongside a small vegetable garden in the backyard.

I will be the first to admit I don’t have a green thumb. I come by it honestly. My mom destroyed so many house plants that she once put weeds in a hanging basket, figuring they would grow anywhere. Needless to say, that didn’t quite work out as planned either. Each summer I stumble through the vegetable garden, fortunate to harvest a smattering of zucchini, green beans, tomatoes and basil. I occasionally collect a bell pepper or two. I have another neighbor, Joyce, who has the most beautiful garden, and she generously shares, not just of the produce, but also of her wisdom. Yet, deep down – I know that it’s only a minor amount of skill and a whole lot of luck that generates anything from my back yard.

The blackberry bush has continued to expand and flourish, but with minimal fruit the past few years. Only a coffee cup was filled last summer. I honestly gave up. I thought perhaps some of it was my own lack of ability, and the other portion of blame was lack of effort or care. Then imagine my great surprise when beautiful, perfect, black/deep purple orbs dripped from the thriving green limbs. Stun and shock have filled my system. I have already collected two large tubs, and at least as many (and probably more) red fruit are simply waiting to ripen. At my daughter’s request, I even made a difficult blueberry/blackberry gelatte. Blackberry cobbler awaits our family in the future.

I’m preaching this Sunday on Matthew 13, the Parable of the Sower. As I spent over an hour in the hot sun, dripping sweat, I contemplated reaping the harvest. As the Bible so often illustrates, we don’t always see the reward of what we sow. And sometimes, try as we might, our efforts are poor. I’ll never have Joyce’s gift for gardening. And yet, God is merciful. Even if we fling our seed in lousy soil or don’t know how to care for the seed or don’t commit ourselves to the growth of the seed, God takes mercy on us. Sometimes when we least suspect it, we find ourselves surrounded by grace, beauty, bounty, and joy – exactly how I feel when I take a freshly plucked blackberry and pop it into my mouth. It’s even sweeter when we know we don’t deserve it. And truthfully, God’s mercy is always a gift – we never deserve it, no matter how dedicated we are to the church or how many good works we do each day.

I’m grateful God is merciful. I’m grateful for the harvest – whenever it may come.

More in the Season of Lent

Image

            Yesterday I heard a colleague spouting these words as she left a meeting, “No alcohol! No sweets!” Being on the tail-end of the conversation, I responded, “That sounds awful!” My immediate thought was her doctor had insisted on the restrictions. She quickly replied, “Oh, it’s Lent, you know.” I felt a tad bit chagrined. Being the only clergyperson around, I should have immediately known the reference.

             Lent is one of those odd times of the Christian year. Many people will “give up” or “sacrifice” something during those 40 days (minus Sundays) prior to Easter. These items often focus on food or luxuries. Alcohol, sweets, red meat, television, fast food – all these things are commonly associated with the season. Yet, why do we give up something? Is it a habit, just a thing to do? Is it a spiritual discipline? How do we hope to grow in our faith by sacrificing something we probably don’t really need anyway?

             When my kids were little, and I began to introduce the concept to them, I focused a great deal on what it means to have too much. In our society, we are almost obsessed with wanting more – more money, more free time, more possessions, more youth, more beauty, more success. And yet, so many of us have so much more than we truly need. (Now today’s thoughts are not directed towards the millions who are struggling to get by, who are dealing with food endangerment, and are on the edge of homelessness. It’s for the rest of us – the majority in this country.) I told my children that when we are so focused on wanting more, we have a really hard time focusing on Jesus and who he wants us to be. I explained that he lived his life in poverty, and wants us to help those who are struggling. When our lives are filled with excess, it’s really hard to do that. The whole camel through the eye of a needle thing.

             We give up things during Lent so that we have the heart, time, and space to focus on empowering those who don’t have more. We give up things during Lent so that we can identify, in some small manner, what it is like to do without. We give up things during Lent so we can walk in the path of Jesus.

             What am I giving up during Lent? Fast food. I have a real thing for fizzy Diet Cokes, and realized during the dark winter days how dependent I had become upon them. And I know many people in the world don’t have the extra few dollars to buy a soft drink from a fast food chain. Will I succeed in this endeavor? I surely hope so. I never maintained my promise during the years I gave up chocolate. (If the Girl Scouts wouldn’t deliver cookies during Lent, I would have had a better chance at success.) Regardless of success or not (after all, wanting “more success” will not enhance my spiritual journey), I pray that these days will create more space in my heart, soul, and mind so that I might see the needs around me, and might be filled with the Christ spirit to find ways to help meet those needs.

             I wish you all a fruitful Lent.

Chinese New Year & New Beginnings

Image

     Our family, consisting of white Southern Protestants, has observed Chinese New Year for the last 15 years. Why, one might ask? And the answer is the little baby girl we brought home from China. We want her to be proud of her heritage and her homeland, so celebrating the biggest holiday of the Chinese year is one way we do that. When the kids were little, I began to make Chinese food (as best I could) on the first day of CNY. We also decorated the room with red paper and drawings, red being the color of celebration in China. I presented them with special red envelopes with a dollar inside. We pored over children’s books about the activities and beliefs behind the customs.

             Once we moved to Greensboro a few years back, the Greensboro Chinese Association greatly expanded our observance of this event. Ava joined the Chinese folk dance troupe, and began to dance each year in the grand celebration. The annual event took place this past Saturday, with Ava and her friends dancing once again. Today’s picture shows my lovely daughter preparing for a dance with a rather heavy sword. We enjoyed the lion dance, traditional Chinese music, kung fu demonstrations, calligraphy, Chinese food, and other ways to celebrate this ancient holiday. Both my children will once again today receive traditional red envelopes with money inside.

             Chinese New Year evolves out of a desire to begin again – to put the winter and darkness behind and to prepare for the coming spring and signs of new life. The ancestors and history are also to be honored and celebrated. Numerous rites and rituals help participants remember their own ancestors and the nation’s  cultural history. These observances are a way to tie the past with the desire to be ready for the future. And I love how many activities display readiness during this two week celebration (which actually just begins today) – purchasing new clothes, cleaning the house from top to bottom, getting one’s hair cut, making special food items which honor the past or symbolize new beginnings. Rice – the most basic of foods in China – symbolizes wealth, luck, and a relationship between the Heavens and humanity. Fresh fruits symbolize life and new beginnings. Each item is prepared with special intent, and absorbed into the body with a special thanksgiving for the things which it represents.

             Each year our family thinks about new beginnings. We honor the past – we tell the story of our little China baby and the ways she has grown. We once again recount that God planned for her to be in our family – she’s such a perfect fit. We reminisce about the elders who are no longer with us, and how much they loved our new baby. We proclaim that any ancestor who didn’t know her would have loved her as much as we do. And we explore possibilities and options for the future – college, career plans, possible partner and children one day. These two weeks are a grand time.

             I’ll head to Dynasty Asian Market later this afternoon to stock up on items for our family Chinese feast later. The lady at the checkout is always more than helpful – it’s rather obvious that the white woman in front of her doesn’t know a whole lot about Chinese cooking – and I appreciate her generosity in helping me learn. My family and I will once again honor this wonderful tradition, remembering the past and anxiously anticipating the future.

Your Friends Are So Nice

“Your friends are so nice, Mom.” The words alone sounded like a compliment, but the tone from my teenage son definitely gave it a different meaning.

 “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. We sat beside each other on the first bench seat of my parents’ van, my parents in the front while my daughter and husband relaxed in the back. Late afternoon sunlight filled the car, as Dad drove along a two lane mountain road back to their house. A pleasant afternoon had been spent at the 50th anniversary reception for my oldest friend’s parents. The little church fellowship hall overflowed with food, pictures, family and well-wishers. My kids regularly see my dear friend, Sandra, and her family, but other childhood friends were present as well. These now middle-aged women were excited to meet my two teens, hear about their joys and dreams in life, and retell old stories for their entertainment.

 “Well, mom, I mean, they were just really sweet. It’s kinda hard to imagine those were your best friends growing up.”

 “Thanks for the compliment, buddy.” I responded with a fair amount of sarcasm.

 “Hey, don’t pick on my little girl,” my own mother chimed in with a laugh. “She’s very nice, too.”

 “Mom, you know what I mean,” Caleb added quickly. “It’s just – you know – they are really nice.”

 “And I’m not?” I bestowed a look that dared him to contradict me.

 “That’s not what I mean. But you know you can be critical.”

 “They haven’t been raising you, buddy.” The rest of the car’s inhabitants joined in the humor, as my poor boy smirked with chagrin.  “I know. I’m not as nice as they are. I can’t really explain why they wanted to be my friends – why we were all so close.”

 “Now, Amy,” Mom added. “You are as nice as they are. I just didn’t go around telling your faults to other people.”

 “Well, thanks for that, Mom.” I grinned, as Caleb continued to defend himself. In the weeks that followed that day, and in reflection on my son’s comments, I have pondered how I grew up with a very nice bunch of girls – girls who always had kind words for others, who never saw the bad in someone else, who worked hard, who loved their families, girls who were loyal and true friends. I realize my own family of origin modeled this for me. It didn’t mean we were blind to the faults of others. But it did mean that we showed grace and kindness in the face of others’ faults, because none of us were perfect. I thought about how great my friends looked physically – in the midst of their 40s – and realized that harsh lines of judgment, envy, and hate had not marked their features. I examined my own face in the mirror and yet could not be certain if those lines were there or not. I always knew they were nicer than I – as my son so obviously exposed to the rest of the family – but did it show on my face as it did on theirs?

 Those girls taught me a lot when we were little – more things than I can remember. And these wonderful women still are teaching me. They teach me and remind me each day that living a life of grace, compassion and forgiveness is the best way to truly live.