Putting the “Fun” Back into Dysfunction

Normally by this time of year I’d be up to my ears in Christmas cheer, volunteering, filling bags of gifts for kids of felons, and helping to clothe and feed the homeless. But this December, due to a demanding writing schedule I’ve been a bit lax in my elvish duties. I’ve watched instead of engaged.

So in a guilt ridden effort to do at least one noble deed for the greater good, I want to acknowledge those that have stepped up to the plate.

Take my ex-husband “Uncle Brent” for instance. (For more details of this twisted relationship see the Dysfunctional Family, and “NO” I am not from Arkansas or Appalachia or mountainous communities where we marry our brothers).

A few weeks ago Uncle Brent mentioned he and his wife “Auntie Lauren” wanted to serve the homeless. I just happened to have a flier from church with a list of all the “do good” activities I planned to do but put off (no judgment please).

But Brent actually followed through and took my two older kids (Kyle and Faith) last Saturday to serve in downtown Santa Ana. My son Kyle filled me in on their adventure. He told me the leader of the group –Randy, asked Brent if he knew how to pray. Brent replied “yes.” So Randy informed Brent that he was now in charge of praying for the whole group before they tended to the poor. (No pressure!)

Now this might not sound like a big deal to most of you –but it’s kind of a big deal to my son, to me and maybe to Brent too. He hasn’t been super involved in church in a long time –since our divorce, actually (eight years ago), and in a roundabout twisted way, it felt sort of redemptive.

I never wanted to be the reason someone turned away from God but in all the mess of the divorce, I clung to the church in my (victim mentality) righteousness and Brent moved away in his (bad-guy) shame.

The truth is there should be room for both of us and God makes no distinction between the prodigal son and the older brother who played by all the rules.

It took me a long time to embrace forgiveness and understand true mercy, to let go of my anger, move towards healing and learn to love my ex-husband like a real brother. Fortunately the benefits of extending grace have far outweighed the excruciating refinement of my crusty character.

I can honestly say I enjoy co-parenting my son and daughter with Uncle Brent and Aunt Lauren. I know all of you divorced parents out there are like, “Really?” Yes! Really. I pinky swear.

I love watching my husband and ex-husband hang Christmas lights together and bumble around on the boom, seeing little Kolby squeal with delight when Auntie Lauren comes over, and I am overwhelmed with emotion when I hear my boy telling me about his dad leading a group of humble servants in prayer and service to the poor and needy.

And to me…this is what it’s all about.

To seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

(Oh yeah…and TO FORGIVE. Even when it’s hard)

From the Keller’s to Uncle Brent and Aunt Lauren…we love you and Merry Christmas.

Samantha, Tim, Kyle Adams, Faith Adams, and Kolby Keller

If you would like to jump on board this Christmas and help out the poor in the South Orange County area, here is a list of service opportunities through Mariners Mission Viejo Church.

Spread the Love by serving this year! And if you sign up, let me know and I’ll join you.

Love, War and Wings

Tim-“I want WINGS with sauce.” Sam-“Oooohh Gross!”

It’s not easy to get in a good argument at church, especially when you’re Mr. and Mrs. Pastor. You snipe when no one’s looking and then smile when someone appears, get in a good dig and then pretend all is happy for the crowd.

“La La La …you peanut butter bone head.”

But yesterday, my husband and I even didn’t have the strength to play the happy Christian poser game.

It’s never a good idea to argue with a sick and hungry man (i.e. BIG CRANKY BABY) but I forget who I was dealing with, possibly because it seems like my husband is sick all the time (thanks to our germy toddler) or maybe because I had zero sympathy for the man who has a perennially runny nose.

Just as my husband was accusing me of never wanting to go his favorite restaurants (which I do all the time even though his idea of a good meal is how many sauces are offered) a darling woman from church approached us.  Normally, I would feign gaiety but this time I turned to her and blatantly confessed, “Excuse us; we’re fighting right now.”

She looked slightly stunned and then laughed. “Well can I interrupt your fight?”

Tim and I looked at each, snarled, and then turned to our friend and nodded our heads in agreement.

“I just wanted to say hi. What are you fighting over?”

“Where to go to lunch,” we said in unison.

“I have an app on my iPhone for that. I just shake it and it gives us the place to go.”

Tim and I looked at each and laughed. Maybe she was on to something.

I just wish there was an app that went further and got to the root of the problem. You could shake it and it would translate Mars to Venetian-like a mini-mobile me counselor.

When Tim says Sam never wants to eat his food he really means “I’m feeling sick, cranky and needy right now. I want to be taken care of and babied. I want you to want to eat wings and sauce, or maybe you could make me Top Ramen like my mom used to and then I would feel really loved.  I’m grumpy because I have a paper for seminary due tomorrow and I’m already exhausted before I even start the darn thing. Waa Waa.”

When Sam says she doesn’t want to go to Wild Wings she means-“I’m feeling overwhelmed and I can’t stand wings because they have 1900 calories before you add the sauce.  I don’t want to go home and make you Top Ramen because you will then turn on the football game and I am so sick of the NFL I can barely breathe. (If the tables were turned and you had to watch ten hours a week of chick stuff you would poke your eyes out too)  I have two huge writing projects I am working on and since you’re already overwhelmed I can’t even ask you for help, but I guarantee you will assume that I will care for the children while you do all your work, and oh, by the way, I still have to get my work done and I guess I will write in my sleep because clearly your crap is more important than mine. Waa Waa.”

It’s never really about “where we are going to lunch?” The fight is always about ten layers deeper than what you are bickering about and it has far more to do with feeling understood, empathized with and cared for.

And the truth is, when our bucket is full and we feel understood, we’d eat just about anything or anywhere (even Wild Wings) and watch endless hours of football for our beloved (remember dating?)

So, where did we go for lunch?

We went to Nordstrom’s Café, (where I wanted to go) and then we came home and I let Tim study. It was a compromise and that’s what we do in marriage.

But it would have been really fun to shake the phone.

 

A Picnic with Frank and Chuck

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First steps and last steps…

Baby steps

Today my kids and I went on an unusual adventure. After church, I packed up my little tribe and hustled them to the car, explaining that we were heading over to the Vintage Sr. Center for a high tea and a little socializing with our elderly neighbors.  My twelve-year-old son, who is generally amiable and warm-hearted seemed up for the occasion, though he did comment under his breath that old people smell.  My nine-year old drama queen on the other hand, ran and asked her dad if she could stay at church to clean up, tried to arrange an impromptu play-date and looked for any loophole possible to avoid accompanying us.  The baby was on board, but then again, at nine months old, she didn’t have much of a choice.

I dressed the girls in costumes, both for Halloween’s s sake and because I thought the Sr. residents of Vintage would enjoy seeing a cute baby dressed as Wonder Woman and my older daughter decked out as an 80’s style Valley Girl.  But poop happens, and the baby had a blow out all over her costume and the left half of my body as I walked into church.  I cleaned myself up, but I reckon if you sniffed real close, I was borderline stinky.  It was one of those days.

So, in we marched to Vintage Sr. Center…a weary mom, a hyper baby, a reluctant pre-tween in a pink tutu, and my easy-going son. We stopped on the patio and greeted a few seniors who were taking some air.  They oohed and ahhed over the baby and we smiled and made small talk before heading in.The Sr. Center was surprisingly lovely.  I was caught off guard by the soothing decor, calming fountains, and tableaux of lush flowers and inviting spaces. The communal area was set up for the tea with tables decorated in harvest linens and china resplendent with tiny sandwiches, fresh fruit, and sweets. 

About twenty elderly ladies were assembled for the tea and we jumped in to join the festivities.  I made the rounds with the baby, and let her simple charm and utter innocence bless the ladies. And the baby obliged, smiling and giggling, while proudly showing off her two new teeth.  She clapped and waved, danced and performed for her audience of approving grannies, reveling in their attention and genuine delight.  But babies have limited attention spans, and after a while she whimpered to get down and explore on the ground.

Like lightening, the baby crawled over to the one solo male, sitting alone with a walker in front of him. She climbed up on the side of the walker and to her surprise, it moved.  On the cusp of walking, the baby had found a strong sturdy aid to help her take her first steps.  I glanced up at the man, hoping he wouldn’t mind that the baby had absconded his only source of mobility, but he seemed enthralled by my wee tyke now making circles with the walker.

He leaned over and said in a raspy voice, “You know, I never thought I would walk again, but I’ve been working hard with the physical therapist to strengthen my legs and I can even do the stairs now.  Soon, I should be able to get around with just a cane.”

As the baby made circle after circle with the walker, fiercely determined to take one step after another, the man talked about losing his good friend to a stroke only a few days before. His matter of fact demeanor appeared callous at first, but then it began to dawn on me that in this environment, he was getting used to loss. I scooted close to listen, recognizing the sacredness of an open heart and a lifetime of wisdom being shared.

He told me there were two types of residents at the Sr. Home, the terminal and those in transition. The transitional folks were there for a set period of time to recover from a surgery or a fall while their families arranged a way to bring them home with assisted care, but the others were there until they died.  It was their final home on this earth. He said it made all the difference in the world how the residents identified themselves. He said the terminal were hopeless and sad…their spirits bitter and hard. But the transitional residents had a promise of recovery and home, a reward at the end of a long and painful journey.

The man smiled at me and proclaimed,” I am going home again when I can walk. Just like that baby forging ahead, I refuse to end my life here.”

I caught my son’s eye and winked; delighted he was engaged in helping set up the slide show for the poetry reading. Then we drank tea, listened to Casey at the Bat and enjoyed cupcakes. I saw my older daughter drawing pictures and presenting them to the elderly ladies, smiling and preening in her costume. Eventually, the baby grew tired of her game, crawled into my arms and fell asleep.

As I gathered up my kids to go home, and hugged my new friend good-bye, I asked him if I could come back and play cards with him.  He nodded “yes”, excitedly muttering something about Gin Rummy.

I drove off pondering his statement about the two types of residents at the Sr. Home.  I was struck by how profound his observations were and how it also applied to a much bigger realm than just the Vintage Sr. Center.

Our perspective on life, our very identity rests on how we view ourselves on this planet, either as transitional–with the hope of eternal life and a greater kingdom awaiting us, or as terminal—life consisting of a limited time and place, with a beginning and end, and then no more. Even the most decadent Sr. Home in the world would feel like hell, if you looked at as your last step to the grave.

The man knew that to have a life, he had to change his perspective.   

Later that night, I asked my son if he enjoyed himself at the Sr. Home. He responded with a decisive, “Yes! They didn’t smell bad at all, but you on the other hand, need to take a shower.”

Profound Lessons from Aspergers Syndrome

isolation

Image by Norma Desmond via Flickr

It was the night of the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner at our church.

 As the pastor’s wife, I am generally required to attend these sorts of things with the unspoken expectation to always smile, be nice, and glow with the joy of the Lord, even if I have to, dare I say… fake it.   I was running late that evening, overwrought with juggling three kids, sports practice, and a cranky baby. My plastered on smile thinly hid tears of frustration leaking out my nose.  As I stood and perused the room full of familiar faces, the tension in my spirit only clogged my throat more.  I felt like an intruder interrupting a play in the second act. The crowd was engaged in conversation and gaiety and I felt like I was barging in with a bag full of awkward.  I stood on the outside, trying to find the right moment to break into the group, but none seemed to be forthcoming.  Then I saw him, a boy with an apparent disability, obviously struggling to find his place, and something in my heart connected, his outward instability mirroring my own inner turmoil.

I sat down next to him and smiled, possibly the first of the evening with any emotion behind it.  The seats were close and our shoulders brushed when I scooted in my chair. He looked up at me and frowned, his large eyes expressing scorn at my presence.  In a cheery voice, I stuttered, “Hello!

Instead of “hi” in return, he groaned, “ughh,” and rolled his eyes, disgust dripping from his every breath.  Stunned, I could only laugh.  Peals of tension rolled away in a glorious moment of self-deprecating humor. Not that I would ever show it, but I too, have moments when I want to turn and run the other way from people. His complete transparency was a treasured gift.  There was no guile or charm about him, just raw emotion spewing from his soul.

His mother jumped in and apologized profusely.  “Our son has Aspergers Syndrome” she whispered in explanation. Both the mother and father appeared exhausted and overwhelmed.  I noticed they had two little boys sitting next to them as well.  Their weary faces told a story of resignation and personal agenda’s relinquished that I couldn’t even imagine.  My little pity-party quickly faded in the light of their self-sacrifice in caring for a child with special needs.

I nodded my understanding, but was determined not to leave, even though I could sense her apprehension regarding her son’s erratic behavior. Just then, one of my favorite ushers sat down on the other side of the boy. He started to talk to him, just jabbering really, anything to try to help relax the boy’s parents. He told the boy that I was the pastor’s wife and that I used to volunteer with High School Students.  The boy covered his ears.  He went on and shared with him how I had helped start our church with my husband.  This time the boy yawned. My usher friend shrugged his shoulders and looked sad, but somehow I knew I wouldn’t break through his walls with an assortment of credentials.

The boy turned and faced me. “So what do you do now…right now?” he asked.

His question caught me right in the middle of bite of pasta, which slipped off my plastic fork and landed on his right foot.  “Well,” I said, willing to throw caution to the wind, “Sometimes I like to throw noodles.” And I launched another one at his left foot.

The boy burst into laughter along with the rest of the table and a gentle wave of release rolled over us.  His protective walls came down and he suddenly he began to chatter away, allowing us for a short time, to enter his world. He told us all about his love of McDonald’s desserts and how Korea had the best dessert menu of all.  His mom jumped in and shared that he had memorized every McDonald’s menu in the world, country by country.  Clearly brilliant, opinionated, and passionate, the boy seemed to have exaggerated mental gifts juxtaposed with irrationality.  He was both at once delightful and overwhelming. But for a brief moment, his mother relaxed and let go of her tension, sitting back and joking with his two younger brothers.

The boy’s father came back to the table with an enormous piece of carrot cake for him.  He gently placed it in front of him with a plastic knife and fork and smiled at him.  In one fell swoop, the boy inhaled half the cake. The fathers smile quickly disappeared.  “Slow down bud!  Use your fork and knife!”

But the boy did not like to be reprimanded and he grabbed the knife like a dagger and stubbornly resisted his father. In a battle of wills, the boy reluctantly cut the remaining piece in two and shoved them both in his mouth in rapid succession.  Trying not to tremble, the knife only inches from my face, I dared not move an inch.  In lightening speed his father grabbed the knife, cleaned up the frosting smeared all over his face and sent him off to explore the church. His mom trotted after him, glancing back with an apologetic look.  The father collapsed into the chair and rested his head in between his hands, exhausted and embarrassed. 

“You know you are doing a great job, don’t you?” I said.

His eyes filled with tears and he whispered, “I don’t know.  He’s better at home. He feels safe there” 

Our eyes met, acknowledging a difficult situation at best, recognizing that sometimes there are no words.  I could see his fierce and unconditional love for their first-born son mixed with sadness, disappointment and struggle. His wife came back to the table and the little boys ran off to play and care for their brother, another reminder of how their whole family was affected by Aspergers. 

“Does he ever get lost?” I asked, noticing how he would become entranced by an object and take off at full speed only to have his attention caught elsewhere a moment later. 

“Not usually”, they said in unison.

His mom laughed, “Then again you don’t see us exactly running after him.” They smiled at each other, an inside joke perhaps, all the tenderer to the observer because of their apparent love for each other. “But he always comes back,” she said in exasperation and acceptance.

Then we took communion together, a group of broken people…acknowledging our Savior’s sacrifice.

 I watched them pack up the boys and head home.  Neither of them had been chosen as one of the volunteers to be publicly affirmed in front of the crowd that night, but then their offering to the Kingdom and the church wasn’t a loud one.  It was a quiet and daily surrender, a desert journey of faith that these two humble Saints had said “yes” to.  In the light of their obstacles, I was amazed that they even showed up to volunteer more. 

And, as I gathered up my own little flock for the night, my heart encouraged and challenged by the sacrificial love of this family, my burdens didn’t seem quite so heavy anymore and my church felt like home once again.

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