I just finished a year of unexpected fatherhood.
As those closest to us know, my wife Kat and I have long wanted to be parents. Its something we’ve talked about, prayed about, and found so far is not in the cards for us. After years of trying the closest we had got until this past year was the heartache of miscarriage.
Last year around this time Kat and I had been praying about it and about given up. I had at least decided to be happy and content with the life I have, knowing the time may not be right, and had not expected any of the joys or trials of parenthood. I think for Kat it was more painful and difficult than for me.
Then in the middle of my Clinical Pastoral Education internship in a hospital in Raleigh, right as we had decided to just hand it over to God, we got a call from a good friend. Her mother served on staff with an international exchange agency and they were having difficulty placing a student from Kenya in a home in the US. She asked us — would you mind being parents for a year?
Both of us were shocked. My wife has dreamed of being a mother for years but had been told she could not, due to complications related to her spina bifida. She did get pregnant — right after we got married about 10 years ago, only to have that first child be lost in a miscarriage.
I didn’t know what to think. I remember saying “it isn’t a good time”, and listing off all the reasons it was difficult — being back in graduate school, finances being tight, our schedules with our ministry. I believed I was being cool and rational, but looking back I realize something: in my heart I had given up. My heart was hurting from the pain of not believing I ever could be a father, could ever measure up to being the sort of man who could really be what was needed. On some level unconsciously I had come to connect our inability to have children with my own failure to live up to my image of a man as provider, care-taker. All those roles that a man must be had been taught and had modeled to me growing up. I didn’t feel I lived up. In many ways in my mind I had moved beyond that traditional southern image of man as bread-winner, provider, head of home. Yet looking back I realize in my heart I was still being held captive. So though I tried to make it sound like a long list of reasons that were rational, actually I was stuck. And when I answered the call “take up your cross and follow him I heard the master say”, for me at many points that has meant choosing to serve in ways where I went without and was not the comfortable person I had been taught hard work would make my family and myself. Looking back I realized that deep down I didn’t believe I could be a father, and the thought of failing at fatherhood terrified me.
So Kat struggled with giving up hope and I told myself it simply was not being a good time, but really had given up on myself without admitting it.
A wake-up call for me was when while considering the situation I got a call from the friend who had contacted us about the opportunity. Beyond being a good friend, she is also a progressive Christian from the LDS background. (Yes progressive Mormons exist, and even here in the South). A part of the LDS tradition is an openness to God’s continuing revelation through moments of insight, dreams, and visions. My friend told me about her own dream of my wife, me, her, and a several other people. If I recall correctly, in her dream there was a child in my wife’s arms. Everyone called out for someone, a minister, to lay hands and bless the child because it appeared dead. In the dream I did so and nothing happened. Someone encouraged me to do so again and I said “no, the child is gone. We just have to make peace”. Then my friend knew that wasn’t right and stretched out, laying her hands on the child and prayed, and it woke up, alive.
Though I am not from an LDS background, I found Christ through a very charismatic youth program in high school. Because of that, I have always been open to the idea of hearing what God is saying to you through your own dreams and the dreams of others. In fact through church members from that and also Native American traditions in which dreams are a way of gaining insights of your life, I’ve learned an openness to dreams as ways of gaining insight about your lives. For me though my friend couldn’t figure out what the dream meant, it seemed to peel away the layers I had put over the place in my heart that hurt over not being able to be a father, helping me see that it was my own pain and fear not just common sense, that was standing in the way. I needed to let down the defenses I had built up and trust God to be able to make me ready to be a parent. I needed to realize that God doesn’t call the qualified, but qualified the called. And it struck me clear as day through her telling me that story that Kat and I being a parent might be a calling just as much as us preaching. If so, I needed to be able to take the leap of faith and answer God’s call.
Shortly thereafter we found out both why this young lady was in real need of us, and also out of it some of why we were being called by God. We found out that this child was a teenage girl with spina bifida and the difficulty housing her was due to her disability. “Are you sure you could deal with that?” we were asked. “We are having a lot of folks who aren’t sure they can set up their house for wheelchair and who are afraid I remember Kat and me looking down at Kat’s wheelchair, up at each other and smiling.
“In a wheelchair, with spina bifida? Yes.” Kat says “I’ve been dealing with my spina bifida for over 30 years. If I can get around in my wheelchair at our house, I’m sure she can.”
Our student arriving was a time of excitement, busyness, and trepidation.
I remember worrying over her coming, and when I prayed hearing the Holy Spirit say to me, “I am going to speak to her through this experience, but I am also going to speak to you”.
Before I knew it there she was – smiling with a smile that could light up a night’s sky – the young lady we were called to parent, our gift from Kenya.
I have to admit this year being a parent, temporarily and filling in for her own parents while she was away, has been a whirlwind. It has been the best year of my life so far. I have loved every day waking up getting to know this awesome young person God had dropped into our lives, and working together with Kat to make sure the hurdles that stood in the way of her having a good experience were knocked down. To me the feelings I have had about parenthood, with some details being changed, fit very well this country song:
It also was one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever been through, too. The international exchange agency had no plan to deal with our host kid’s medical needs, and Kat had to (with my help) fight an uphill battle to educate them about what the medical needs of kids with spina bifida are, convincing them to pay for medical bills, all while we arranged access to adaptive sports, and – oh yeah – family time, while working our job as pastors. My friends with kids, especially kids with various special needs, essentially responded, “Welcome to the club. That is what parenthood is like. And it is worth every minute of it”.
And I can say it was worth every minute of it, and I would do it in again in a heartbeat. Saying “bye” to this young lady as she boarded the plane this week was one of the hardest moments I’ve had in a while. I didn’t want the year to end.
What I heard the Spirit say has ended up being true, though. Being a parent this year taught me so much.
First, here is sort of a fun list of things I’ve learned:
Lessons I’ve Learned From Having a Daughter
1. What swag is, and how I don’t have it.
2. What the Harlem Shake is, and that, to my disappointment, it involves far less milk than I would have expected.
3. The absolute sheer joy of seeing the kid you are being the parent for succeed. Seeing them do well at basketball, like when our kid flipped over an opponent blocking them in wheelchair basketball, when you are acting as a parent can actually feel better at times than seeing your own success.
4. More than I ever thought I would about braids, hair irons, extensions. Apparently being a girl is hard work. I’m thankful Kat gets that experience and not me!
5.The joy and importance of just hanging out. Some of the best moments this year have been playing scrabble or Apples to Apples, or even losing at checkers to the kiddo.
6. How hearing your kid’s laughter or seeing them smile can make time stand still for a second.
7. The fear and trepidation at seeing a kid you’re caring for step out on their own in something, and the joy at seeing them succeed.
8. The importance of things like family prayer, and pancake breakfasts. When our kid first came this year we debated what role to have prayer and Bible study. After all, our own family didn’t. The first night she asked to pray together before bed. That tradition of praying together, reading Scripture together, and doing regular traditions like Saturday pancake breakfasts helped us grow closer together and learn about each other.
9. The importance of letting others help with keeping things going. Shortly after she arrived our kid said “can I have some chores?” She said in Kenya, having chores meant you were part of the family, and she wanted to feel a part of the family. Talking to my wife who has a disability I learned how so often we see someone with a disability and think “let me do that for them” and it causes them to feel we are treating them as less then. Standing out of people’s way to help out when they want to whether at home, at work, at school, or at church is telling them you are family and you can do it.
10. How great the beach and 3D movies are to someone to whom they are new.
11. How spoiled we Americans are. Even the poorest of us have so many luxuries we take for granted.
12. The importance of having a Dictionary at Scrabble. No, kiddo, jeepy is not a word.
13. That there is always room for chocolate. And sometimes splurging on a milkshake is necessary if it brings you together as a family.
14. Losing at the video game or chess is worth it, for the laughter and smiles you share with your kid.
To be a little more serious and more detailed, here are three big things that I’ve learned this year which will change my life.
1. Parenthood is not just producing a child, it is a calling you have to love and sacrifice to see your children grow.
From what I can gather, our exchange student’s parents cared for her and worked to rear her. It took a lot of work to even get a person with a disability in Kenya to school. She told me some stories of parents who had children with disabilities and just abandoned them.
In the past several months I have come to see several kids in the US whose parents, unlike Kat and me, had no problem making a baby. Yet they have turned their back on their kids because of their life choices, because of who they are, or even just not bothered to raise them due to addiction or seeking their own pursuits. We found ourselves growing to love and be willing to sacrifice to have the young lady who stayed with us be healthy and happy this year. I think that sort of finding yourself loving a kid and valuing them is what parenthood is about. Sadly just being able to produce a child doesn’t mean a person will in fact love them and care for them like this.
Having this young lady with us and acting as parents came out of a calling, a sense that this is what God called us to do. And even though we didn’t give birth to her, for this year we poured our love, care, and all of our life we could into her. We grew to love her, care for her, and work hard to keep her healthy and safe, not out of obligation but out of that desire to see her happy and healthy. I read once that a man who was a runner and a believer was asked why he ran. He said that when he ran he felt fully alive and in that he felt God’s pleasure. This is how we felt during this year.
Coming out of this year, we continue to feel this call to be a parent, and have had God open the doors for us to continue to reach out and help young people who have been tossed out of their homes, who don’t have parents, or who are from a troubled family background. We are helping out some young people in that situation even as I write. We also feel sometime after some residencies I have to complete for my education are finished, we will begin looking into the foster and adopt process.
2. Your children aren’t yours. They come from God and return to God, and come to teach you just as much as to learn from you.
There are many important life lessons we had to teach our kid this year. She faced a new culture, with unspoken rules and expectations she couldn’t have known coming in. We were able to guide her through many of these. She also faced the same sort of questions of right and wrong any teenage girl in American high school does. We had many a long night talking with her about what is right and wrong, what is acceptable in our culture, and just helping encourage her to be all she can be.
However because this was only a year, what was clear the whole time was: this short period is a gift. God sent her here in answer to your prayers and hers. God is taking her somewhere else, when her time is done.
I think that, though this may seem different than what it will be like when we have a child of our own we raise from day one, really this is always true of children. Too often when I worked as a mental health aide with troubled kids and later as a pastor with hurting families I have seen parents act as if their children were their possession, or their job was to keep the children in the family. In reality that child is never yours, but instead a gift and blessing from God. You are to love them as one who brings God’s presence in your life, guide them and teach them the best you can, and prepare them to go, leave the nest, and be God’s presence elsewhere in this world.
And anyone or anything God sends along your path not only can you help but you can also help and be taught by.
The spiritual principle behind this experience was explained to me by a friend’s commentary on Matthew 25. My friend Bob Mcleod, another progressive southern preacher who preaches in Methodist churches in the North Carolina Piedmont, writes:
“A Christian should always be trying to communicate with that bit of Christ that resides in every person. ‘Don’t just talk to that individual personality … don’t just look at that person as someone full of ambition and selfishness and personal strategy. If you try to negotiate with that, the job is far beyond you. Remember instead that in that other person’s heart Christ is trying to reach out to the Christ in you.’ .. Christ is everywhere and in everything, and if we wish to attach ourselves primarily to Christ, as opposed to a tradition or personal interest, Christ will unlock doors for us in some very surprising ways”
Our children come from Christ and in their eyes we should be able to see Christ looking back at us. They are sent to teach us lessons, just as much as they are there for us to teach them. I have learned to be open when I have my own children to the lessons their lives have to teach me. Through them I can learn more about God and learn how to better fashion my life after Jesus’ example.
This also means we need to be ready to see them go when their time to step out and be the presence of Christ elsewhere comes. For our kid from Kenya, she had ten months. In that time I do believe God spoke to her through this experience and I know through her God taught me a great deal. Now she must live into what she has learned in her homeland, and I in mine. Likewise when I have a child for their whole childhood, I must realize that my goal is not to keep them under my wing but to help prepare them to know their values, their faith, their spirituality, their mind for themselves so that they can go out and become a gift to others outside my home.
A song I heard this year that beautifully pictures this to me is by Rich Mullins and is the words of a child to the Son of God, talking about how he hopes to grow up to be like Him.
3. A final lesson I have learned is that being a parent is seeing the beauty, gift, and potential of the child in my life. Many times while our kid was with us, most especially when she seemed discouraged about barriers she faced or was put down for her accent or disability, but also the many times I saw her succeed at things like wheelchair basketball, high school honor roll, or singing in the church choir, I thought of the following Natalie Merchant song:
At times I could tell that because of her disability, our kid felt she was looked at as less by others. But looking at her I could not but see her as a beautiful, intelligent, sparking gift of God to the world.
I thought often of the Psalmist’s prayer in Psalm 139
“For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”
I kept wanting to tell her “Hon, listen. Don’t listen to them. You are not less than anyone, but you are a shining star the world needs to see. Don’t ever think you are a mistake. God made you just as you are, unique because only as you are can you be the gift God made you to be. Don’t think you will go far despite anything about you – your disability, your background, your anything. You will go far because of who you are, because who you are is a gift from God”.
This made me think about the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons who wrote “”The glory of God is a human being fully alive”. God glories in seeing each of us become fully alive, and helping your kids do this is what parenthood is about.
One Christian author beautifully pictured what being fully alive is about this way:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
This truth reminds me of the beautiful words of Swedish House Mafia’s song “Don’t You Worry Child”
Thank you God for this gift that keeps giving!
And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive Redneck Preacher,