Tuesday, July 30, 2013

One Flew Out of the Cukoo's Nest

VBS. Vacation Bible School or Very Big Step. You be the judge.

Since my comfort and ease of dealing with kids in the past has already been well documented, it's probably not hard to image how much I abhorred working/volunteering for Vacation Bible School before I had a child of my own.

Mondays at VBS were good, because while the kids were nervous or apprehensive about what to expect, there was always a high energy level because it was new. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were the best due to the comfort and familiarity of it all. Games were exciting, lessons were interesting, and crafts were amazing. 

Thursdays by comparison were hell. By this point everyone - teachers and kids - were getting a little grumpy, tired, and almost ready for the whole ordeal to be over. The fun of the first three days was gone, and the whining of the kids reached a deafening crescendo. Fridays were always a little bit better, because hey - it's the last day. Lessons were truncated, playtime was extended, and any snacks left open from the week were consumed with reckless abandon.

Last year was Kai's first experience at VBS - as well as his first experience of being away from me or Ashley and not being taken care of by a family member for an extended period of time. Ashley and I were somewhat comforted by the fact that I was working in the church he was attending VBS, and so in a worst case/DEFCON 1 level trauma, I could literally run down the hallway to see what was the problem.

This year is his first time flying solo during the week. Dad's not working at the church and isn't in the building (although in the interest of self-disclosure, I am writing this from the coffee shop around the corner). The kids and the teachers in the class are new and unknown as this is church we've never visited before. And to offend his finicky palate, the snacks offered at VBS don't hold to the usual standard I provide him with and come from Whole Foods or Earthfare (as he has informed me, Jeno's Pizza Rolls are "not cool." This mentality will undoubtedly change once college rolls around.).  

This is a big step for him. And it's a big step for us. Because not only am I through tears and a queasy stomach having to learn to trust others to take care of him, Kai's having to learn that being away from me is okay.

Because in approximately three weeks, I am going to begin letting him go from 8:00 am - 2:30 pm Mondays through Fridays and trusting in faith the the K4 program he's enrolled in will not be as traumatic as I imagine it to be - for either of us.

Four years ago, I could barely comprehend the idea that I was going be around him all day every day. And now? I can barely comprehend the idea that the house is going to be relatively quiet for the first time in almost half a decade. To be sure, Elias' cries and laughter will take away some of the silence, but my first hero, my first partner in playing tag, my first backyard adventurer will be gone for the majority of the day.

And although I know how necessary it is, it's killing me a little.

Parents are witness to the rapid-fire growth our kids go through, sometimes failing to note the milestones that pass us since we're so intimately connected with our kids. But when the milestones are punctuated by something so huge, so paradigm shifting that it causes us to pause...we see. We see the way the kid who only what felt like yesterday was learning to pull himself up is now writing out the alphabet, dressing himself (with BUTTONS, no less!), and has gotten so big that you have to shop in the "Kids" section and not the "Toddler" section any longer.

This is going to be good for him. He's going to socialize, learn things I don't know to teach him (education may be my background, but I'm not too keen on science), and not be just playing with his toys all day or nagging me to watch CARS for the seven zillionth time. And now, going to the park, the children's museum, the zoo, or the like will again be special and not something done on a routine basis. But more than anything, his being able to attend is nothing shy of miraculous due to how just two years ago, we began to fear for his health if he would ever be able to attend school. That he is healthy and well enough to go is reason to celebrate. 

This is going to be good for Elias. He's going to have my undivided attention - which is what I was able to give Kai - and not be relegated to the "put the kid in a swing/jab a pacifier in his mouth" syndrome that he might have had to undergo with his big brother still around. He's going to grow and change, go on walks and outings with me, and be held and cuddled like crazy. And just as important, he'll learn that once Kai comes home from school each day, sharing his time with me will be as equally as valuable as sharing toys. But more than anything, the special secrets and adventures that I have shared with Kai I can now share with Elias on a level just for him. I won't be repeating the exact same moments with him. This will be memories and bonding time meant just for him. 

This is going to be good for me. I'm going to witness my boys growing up and maturing, hopefully seeing some of the seeds I planted in them coming to fruition (if Kai can learn to just zip his pants after he goes to the restroom). I'm going to have SOME breathing room during the day (HA!) to write, cook, and make sure the house doesn't fall into complete chaos while Ashley is at work. And hopefully I won't be a completely worn-down, frazzled to the point of needing a bucket of Scotch every day, strung-out maniac by the time Ashley gets home from work every day - so we can, you know, actually TALK to each other at some point.

We're all going to be okay.

I just need to keep some emotional bandages on hand, as we're all going to stumble a bit during these first steps.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dead Christians Society

While we were out and about running errands the other day, Kai and I stopped in at the local Christian book store. Not so much because I enjoy torturing myself psychologically, but because I knew that in the back of the store they keep a DVD of VeggieTales on some kind of möbius loop playback to hypnotize unruly children. Did I mention I had a four year old with me? Who had slept rather poorly the night before and was in a mood that could frighten starving hyenas? Yeah.

After depositing him into one of the built-to-preschooler-scale couches they have in the back, I took a walk around the store - to see what was humorously called a "Best Seller," to see how many versions of WWJD iPhone covers they have, and to see if I could find any recoil-inducing greeting cards to mail some of my friends. Having probably already confused the staff of the store by my wearing a Doctor Who tshirt and cargo shorts instead of the requisite dad attire all the other fathers had on of a polo shirt and pleated khakis, I went to the back to go sit with Kai while his pupils dilated to the talking CGI vegetables. But in the midst of my smirking at the plaques to hang on walls, tracts to hand to the lost, and disproportionate number of faith-based patriotic items for sale, one singular thought hit me once I let my guard down for a minute:

I kinda miss some parts of this culture.


My all-too-brief stints as Youth or College Pastor, to say nothing of the number of times I have stood behind a pulpit to speak, have changed me. And I have loved the ways in which they have changed me NOW as opposed to how they could have changed me at an earlier age.

For as long as I can recall, I've felt a call to ministry. And were you to ask my wife or any of the students I've worked with, they will all attest that I've got the heart, mentality, and manic energy level for it. I don't make this statement out of ego, but instead out of experience. Kai has seen me working at and speaking in church for about half of his life (thus far), and I love that he sees a consistent, constant dad between the two places.

But for as much as I love working in ministry and helping others as we navigate our spiritual paths, I've never really...gelled...with other ministers. Granted, there are beautiful exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, I've not exactly gotten along with those in positions of authority in the churches I have served in. Part of this is due to the mixed message I receive of how while they love that I'm not a branded seminarian who comes with pre-programmed ideas of how things should be run, in the same breath they express they wish I was a branded seminarian, because then I might understand how things are supposed to be done.

While I do miss the youth retreats, the midnight conversations, and the sparks in the eyes of those who recognize that our shared faith is more about grace and less about being right, I don't miss in the least bit the jockeying among certain ministers within a staff to position their program, their outreach as the most important, the most critical, the most in need of paying attention to - and by association, said minister in charge of program being the most important person or the one to pay attention to. I don't miss in the least bit not being able to speak my mind or heart or dare to say "no" to something for fear of offending an ego or rocking the boat. I had enough of that in my years of working in higher education administration. I mistakenly believed I might find a more altruistic nature among the people who worked in a church.

I believe that my disconnect within the upper echelon of many pastors boils down to not just my lack of a processed, Velveeta-like MDiv degree, but also that years of working in education have shaped, molded, and formed how I engage with people. Add into the mix that I'm now a parent (two times over) and I weigh what I'm trying to teach my boys, and it's not really all that shocking that working or worshipping in a paint-by-numbers church and faith runs counter to the culture I try to inspire, form, and teach.

Stand on a Desk, Stand on a Pew

Dead Poets Society is one of those movies that, were I stranded on a desert island, I'd want to have with me (along with a BluRay player, HDTV, and satellite phone; but I digress). Having first watched this film when I was in high school, it left an indelible mark on me and warped in a positive way the heart and ideology I used when I found myself in the field of education. Imparting the skills of critical thinking and not being afraid of questions was not the easiest notion to hammer into the relatively thick skulls of college students - but many of them got it. They understood the need to look beyond just repeating that "correct" answer to me.

One scene in the movie particularly highlights the struggle inherent in not just education, but in many churches as well. I won't set the scene (don't worry - I'm not about to spoil anything), because the words convey their meaning quite well:

Mr. Keating:
That was an exercise to prove a point. The dangers of conformity.

Mr. Nolan:
Well, John, the curriculum here is set. It's proven. It works. If you question it, what's to prevent them from doing the same?

Mr. Keating:
I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

Mr. Nolan:
At these boys' age? Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline.

Funny how a movie made almost 25 years ago contains echoes of conversations still being held in classrooms - and churches - today. And while I passionately desire to lead others in the charge of sounding their barbaric YAWP, there are those who still cling to the ghost of the past - because that's what worked and should still work.

Baby Jesus in the Bathwater

I'd be a hypocrite were I to say that 100% of what I have said, written, or spoken on is original content. I try my best to cite credit where credit is due, especially if it's a bit of wisdom spoken by a friend. And much like when I was working in higher education, there's an almost-unstated rule that we liberally borrow from presentations, programs, or talks we hear, adapting it to the needs of the people we serve.

Scattered among the vast sea of books, literature, study guides, tomes on theology, concordances, and the like are some true bits of wisdom. Many are written from sincere, intelligent, and passionate individuals who truly desire for the betterment of our understanding of our faith and are willing to serve as a guide through sharing their experiences. And I would gleefully spend hours researching, emailing, reading, and dissecting these books.

But the study guides which were "recommended" to me, the ones which we were to read a chapter, answer the questions at the end of said chapter, and then break into small groups to further discuss the questions in the chapter of the book we were jointly studying, because that worked at Church X? Again - I read, studied, and researched these books...

...and then might have used about 30% of what was "recommended" to use.

The teaching and methodology used in the majority of modern churches parallels one of the largest condemnations levied against the modern education system today: we teach to the test. We begin in Kids Ministry teaching them a formulaic pat answer to questions; we coddle and pacify teenagers by not daring to take them deeper into spirituality instead choosing to focus on sex and topics of polarizing controversy; and as adults we are told week after week to just come as we are after a 20 minute teaching on the depravity of our country or of the depravity of our own souls, laced with a need to tithe.

Through T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs, we are taught and told to parrot the closed response that "Jesus is the Answer," all the while the questions remain open ended. We fear using the words "I don't know" out of a terror of seeming ill-prepared to respond to someone's pain. The soul is important, yes, but how are we able to convince someone that all will be well in eternity when all they can see and respond to is the pain in their soul in the here and now?

I love that months, years after I have moved on and in some cases states away from the students I have worked with that they still email me. Text me. Send their questions to me. Some of them talk about missing the days of our deep conversations or my lunacy on Sundays (Floyd the Cabbage reference), while some vent about their lack of being able to find a decent church or small group, or of the lack of depth in their teachings in church.

They've learned how to move. How to question. How to be.

That's what I miss.

Those moments when we stand in unity on our desks.


Tuesday, July 09, 2013

(Not) Born This Way

When friends and family first saw me interacting with Kai a little over four years ago, most of them were flabbergasted. I had always taken the same approach to children that Kenneth Branagh had in HOW TO KILL YOUR NEIGHBOR'S DOG; that is to say, I kept them at arm's length for the most past and treated their sticky fingers and faces as something in need of being quarantined by the CDC. So when my son was an infant and I somehow automatically knew how to comfort him when he cried, made up songs to sing to him, and didn't run in mortal terror from his diapers, people were understandably astonished. This was, after all, my baptism into taking care of a child.

And the comments began.

Now that Elias is here and after four years I somehow didn't purge all the necessary information on how to care for an infant from my brain, the cycle has begun again. Only this time, I have the joy of splitting my time between a four year old (squeezing every moment of quality time in with him before he trots off to K4 in the fall) and a newborn (who deserves to be held, coddled, and told goofy stories as much as his brother was when he was his age). And now that we're living in a different geographical location than we were with Kai when he was born, new friends witness me with a baby. The same friends who have seen for a few years with Kai.

And the comments continue.

"You were born to do this."

Actually...no. No I wasn't.

Two Truths and a Lie

When I first began taking care of Kai, and especially when I began as a full-time stay-at-home dad, I welcomed comments of this nature. I was terrified that people might question me and my ability to take care of Kai after they actually witnessed me taking care of him. Oh, sure - more than a fair share of people passed judgment on me as a stay-at-home dad, but none of the comments were ever directed specifically at me and the bundle I was taking care of. They were always general, generic judgment calls about men and their inability to walk and chew gum at the same time, and how apocalyptic it must be for a neanderthal like that to take care of a child.

But for people to give praise to my ability to know which end to diaper, and to - you know - actually interact with my kid? It was like music to my soul.

To be honest, I was more astonished than my family and friends were that I was willingly devoting myself to taking care of Kai full-time. Something in me, some recessive mutant gene or trait, must have been activated the minute I held Kai for the first time. (Which, in hindsight, means I now have an origin story. But I digress...) And although I lived in abject fear that I was going to do or say something to him that would emotionally scar him for life before he mastered tummy time, I slowly began to accept what people said to me. What Ashley said and still says to me. What Kai and Elias both say and show in their own ways.

I was a good dad. I am a good dad.

I was good at taking care of them. I am good at taking care of them.

But born to do this?

Not even remotely.

Gender Offender

I have a number of female friends who swear blindly they were "born to be" mothers and/or wives. And that's great; I am genuinely proud for them if they have found something that gives them such joy and fulfillment. It's what from an early age they saw as the culmination of their life's journey, but it's also what people expected of them.

But me? Given my craptastic track record with relationships, the insanely poor lifestyle and health choices I have made, and how for the almost four decades before Kai was born I spent my life focused primarily on me? I was anything but born to be a good dad. There are seriously long periods in my life when I wouldn't have entrusted me with the care of a pet rock, to say nothing of a human being.

I'm barely smart enough now to look back on those times and recognize them for what they were and what they meant to my development, how they shaped me, and that every scar, every healed wound is a badge of honor and sign of victory. But I seriously doubt that anyone who has known me for any length of my life would make the argument I was "born to be" a good dad based on my past. It was not what I wanted, not what I sought, and not what I thought I would ever have.

It was a standard not imposed on me, which left me to develop a little bit more divergent than many of the women I know. And that's unfortunate for us both.

Popeye the Parent Man

I don't believe for one minute that had I been saddled with a similar "future spouse/parent" cross that many women must bear that it would have changed a lot of the choices I made. Part of that is honestly due to how men aren't conditioned to think in such a fashion.

While there may be some deep spiritual truth to me being born to be a good dad, I don't see it as the culmination of my journey. I'm supposed to be the best me that I can be: the best writer, the best nerd, the best beer geek, the best husband, the best friend, the best walker of dogs. I'm a person, separate from yet lovingly, intrinsically bound to forever being a dad. To say that the summation of me as a person rests solely with my ability to be in a relationship, procreate, or be a good parent negates in many ways the journey I have spent my life on to be the best me that I can be. My spouse and children - along with me - get to reap the benefit of me taking the time to make mistakes, learn who I am, and become the best me that I can be.

As pathetically cliched as it sounds, I couldn't have found Ashley unless I stopped trying to find her. Much in the same way, I don't think I could have become a good dad without first becoming a good me. My first, best responsibility to my family is to make sure I am healthy - physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. Otherwise, I'm off-balance, which means our dynamic is off-balance.

I am who I am meant to be. Part of me is still finding and becoming that person, but I'm me.

I'm the person I was born to be.

He just happens to like to change diapers. It's a part of who he is.