Soon

Since K has graduated from seminary (I’m so proud!), we’ve been working on opening our home again for a foster placement. We’ve redone our necessary training, updated our homestudy, and we’re in the process of jumping through the last few hoops to become active again and ready for a placement.

It’s strange to think that it’s been nearly two years (almost to the day) since our first placement. To go from no children to two to none again in a matter of months and then to go for so long without any kids in the house is somewhat surreal. I keep having to remind myself what it’s like to have children to care for–I keep thinking about returning to some old hobbies that I know I’ll have no time for in the near future.

But that’s an easy trade–we’re both so looking forward to being parents again! There just is nothing like it.

With a little luck, we’ll be open for a placement before the end of the month. Once that occurs, anything could happen. We’re sticking with our original placement parameters (licensed for up to three children, but we’ll probably only take two to begin with, ages 0-9 and hopefully a sibling group to keep them from being separated). We’re still open for emergency placement and “legal risk” foster placements, so we could go through several rounds before we get children we are able to adopt.

We’ve made peace with that; our resolve to help children and their families regardless of the outcome for us has only strengthened.

Hopefully, this will not mean that I post to the blog less–after all, I’ll have more to write about. Stay tuned, exciting developments are around the corner!

Fiction & Fatherhood Update and Roadmap

Most of what I’ve posted about lately has been theological in nature, so I thought it might be good to give some of my readers more interested in other aspects of the blog an update and information about what to expect in the future. Here we go:

Fiction

I’m currently working on the following for my fiction:

Avar Narn Novel

By the end of NaNoWriMo last November, I’d put on paper what I estimate to be about 40% or so of the novel. I’ve been editing and slowly rewriting scenes and plot lines for this portion of the book and have the intention of attempting to finish the first draft during NaNoWriMo this year. I may be looking for early readers of drafts, so contact me if that’s something you’re interested in.

Short Stories

I’d like to put some more short stories on the blog to give readers a better feel for my writing. I’ve got one currently under way set in the world of the Worldbuilding Example Series. Not currently sure whether most of what I work on in the near future will fall into that setting or into Avar Narn; we’ll just have to see. I’m also not sure whether I’ll try to submit the short stories anywhere before posting them here–that may depend on how good I feel they are. Again, if anyone out there is interested in critiquing and helping to edit some of these, shoot me a message.

Dark Inheritance

I’m a pretty big fan of the Warhammer 40K universe. While the logic of the setting is highly questionable at times, it’s a science fantasy setting I spent a lot of time in while I was younger, I respect the depth of accreted material over the years since, and it’s just plain fun. Also, there’s a new 40K roleplaying game (Wrath & Glory) due out about August, and I’m excited about that.

Dark Inheritance will be an expansive campaign for Wrath & Glory. It will be posted here in PDF format for any gamemaster who wants to run it for their players. I’m excited about this project as a different form of writing (for public consumption) than I’m used to, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to be writing full story arcs for the RPGs I run rather than building stories on the fly in the last minutes before it’s time to game.

Since the ruleset won’t be out until August or so, the campaign won’t be published until after that. But I’m working now on the story arcs, flow of the campaign and locales and dramatis personae, so it hopefully won’t take me long to add the rules-based information after I have it in my grubby hands.

Cortex Prime Shadowrun Ruleset

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m a big fan of the Shadowrun setting. Not so much the rules. I am, however, a big fan of the Cortex Plus system and its soon-to-be-released successor, Cortex Prime. So, I’m working on a ruleset for Shadowun using the toolkit that Cortex provides.

This has been done before by others, but I’ve never seen a conversion done that I really liked, so I’m doing my own. Cortex Prime has also not been fully released yet, but I expect that it has enough in common with Cortex Plus that only minor tweaks will be required after I have the new rules.

The Cortex Prime kickstarter said to expect a first draft of the rules in the next week or two nearly three weeks ago, so I assume I’ll be able to wrap this project up sooner rather than later.

Yes, that’s a lot of projects. Yes, if I focused on one at a time I’d get at least something to you faster. But that’s not how my creative side works, so it is what it is.

Fatherhood

Tonight, K and I begin several days of refreshing our training as foster parents. We are currently scheduled to renew our home study on July 5th. If all goes according to plan, we should be fully licensed for a new placement shortly after that.

We’re not yet decided on the timing of a new placement, but I would expect that we will take one sometime between late July and early September.

When there are kiddos back in the house, I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to write about in the currently-on-hiatus “Fatherhood” section of the blog.

Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

(Note: I started writing this post this morning and then had to prioritize work. Now that I’m returning to finish, I’m given to understand that the President is signing an executive order ending family separation. I thought about not finishing the post, but I figured I might as well given that the points I’m arguing below have more applicability than just this situation).

Given how much coverage, discussion and debate the crisis at our border has already had, I’ve been reluctant to write about it myself–what is there that hasn’t been said? I have realized, though, that, even if I’m rehashing the same ideas, it means something to publicly stand with my righteous brothers and sisters calling for an end to this abominable practice. So that’s what I’m doing.

Since theology is a large part of what I write about, let’s start with the theological arguments that have been made in favor of the issue. First, let me point out that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church. I must admit embarrassment by that, but also some satisfaction with the response from at least some members of the UMC–over 600 members of the UMC, both clergy and laity, have filed a complaint against Sessions under the UMC Book of Discipline–our version of canon law. The complaint alleges that Sessions’ actions–and his use of scripture to justify them–constitutes potential child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and the teaching of doctrines contrary to those held by the church. Details can be found here.

As both a Methodist and an attorney, I am quite interested in how this plays out. I find the latter three claims to be quite straightforward under the circumstances, but the child abuse claim is an interesting one to me because it will be difficult to resolve. The major issue here is one of causation–are the AG’s actions a direct-enough cause to hold him to culpability? I see arguments on both sides, though I lean toward affirming–in part because we’re not talking about criminal culpability, but a desire to reconcile Mr. Sessions to the teachings of the UMC. The tougher question is what we mean by the term “child abuse?” Herein lies my biggest reservation with this portion of the complaint.

Is the government’s policy wrongly causing children (and parents) to suffer? Undoubtedly. Is this a violation of human rights and general decency? I believe so. Is this practice causing deep trauma, some of which will never heal? Unreservedly, yes. Should we call it child abuse? I’m not so sure.

Yes; it matters. If we expand the societal definition of child abuse, more parents will be subject to claims of abusing their children–not criminally, but giving the poisonous and often hateful nature of online forums and public denunciation in our society, great potential to harm remains. This issue concerns me not directly because of Jeff Sessions, but because of how the construct of “child abuse” might be unreasonably expanded in the future if we are quick to call Jeff Sessions a child abuser.

When we talk about child abuse, I don’t think that there is any question that physical injury, endangerment, or sexual exploitation constitutes child abuse. I think we’d all further agree that emotional abuse is real and can have lasting effects on persons of any age, but especially children. Here, though, is where we run into problems. First, where do we draw the line between negative emotional treatment that is not abusive and treatment that is? Second, how do we separate emotional trauma that results as a byproduct of particular actions from emotional trauma directly inflicted? Are they both “abuse.” I do not have answers to these questions–they require much deeper moral, spiritual and logical analysis than there is space for here. So, I leave this topic with a caution: If you believe that Jeff Sessions is complicit in the violation of human rights by needlessly separating families, fine; I can understand that. If you want to call him a child abuser, I am very hesitant to agree. Is he wrong, morally, in the general sense? Absolutely.

Is he wrong theologically? Also absolutely. Let’s spend some time on that. Sessions stated that there is Biblical support for the governments separation policy by citing Romans 13:1, which reads: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Okay, that is something that “the Bible” says. But coming to the conclusion Mr. Sessions would have us reach requires a very particular–and not very logical–approach to interpretation of scripture, one that ignores (and must ignore) much for the argument to not fall apart under its own weight. Benjamin Corey would call this the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to Biblical interpretation, where we see the Bible as intended to apply usefully and directly to any human situation whatsoever and then to pick and choose verses from the Bible, while ignoring others, to accomplish that. For Corey, and I agree, the fundamental problem of this (see what I did there?) is that it views all parts of scripture as equal in authority and status.

Let’s start local, shall we? Let’s be legalistic for a moment and invoke Rule 107 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the “Rule of Optional Completeness.” This rule allows an adverse party to inquire into any part of a writing when the other party has introduced a portion of that writing into evidence.

If we read all of Romans 13:1-5, we get the following: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who dos o will bring judgment upon themselves. For rules hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The presumption of these verses is righteous rulership by a just ruler who sees himself as a servant of God (and presumably also the people). It does not address behavior when the authorities are acting unjustly and immorally. If we are to act as “a matter of conscience,” it is conceivable that there are situations in which resisting authority is the righteous action.

Both in Biblical history and the ancient world in which Paul lived, we have a multitude of examples of unrighteous rulers. Chronicles and Kings give us plenty of rulers of Israel who “commit the sins” of their fathers before them or who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The dominance of Rome and its rulers in Judea certainly demonstrated exploitative and unjust rulership. It is important, and perhaps ironic, that Paul writes this letter to the Romans and includes the words of 13:1-5. At the time Paul is probably writing, the Roman authorities had little interest in the nascent Christian movement, mostly because they weren’t really sure how to differentiate them from Jews. Persecution would soon ramp up, but at this point things were still relatively calm. Even so, Paul’s argument about the divine right of kings, though supported by the Old Testament stories of the early kings, was not entirely borne out by the long history of kings of Israel and Judah. That oughtn’t be ignored in evaluating Paul’s words.

Still in Romans 13 (verses 8 and 10), Paul writes: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law….Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is fulfillment of the law.”

So, even within the same chapter (remember that chapters are an artificial interpolation, so I use this term to mean “very nearby in the text”), Paul provides us with scripture stating that the government’s position is violation God’s law because it is causing harm.

As a side note, my instinctual response to a leader that cites Romans 13 in, however understated, a claim to divine right and authority is that that person doesn’t understand servant leadership and therefore cannot be the type of ruler described in this passage.

As important as the local landscape of Romans 13:1 is, we must interpret Paul’s words here by reference to the Bible as a whole–with particular attention paid to Jesus’ words and actions.

Here, let us start with other things that the Pauline epistles say of similar tone. I should preface this by saying that, although Romans is one of the epistles about which there is little doubt that Paul is indeed the author, both Ephesians and Colossians are of more disputed authorship, with many arguing that they are Deutero-Pauline, that is, in line with Pauline thought but not written by Paul himself.

Ephesians 6:5-6 reads: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Colossians 3:22 says almost exactly the same thing. This repetition leads to three primary interpretations, I think: (1) the author of Ephesians and Colossians is the same person; (2) the writer of Ephesians had access to Colossians, or vice versa; or (3) this statement is based on something Paul said or wrote that is not directly attested.

If we are comfortable that these epistles conform with Pauline thought, regardless of authorship, we need not resolve the authorship issue (which is good, because we can’t).

Modern Christianity has rejected slavery in all of its forms–we have reject Pauline thought here in favor of “doing no harm” as a truer practice of Christian love. If we have rejected this logic as flawed, we have decided that, inspired as the author(s) of the epistles might have been, they are prone to error in judgment at times. So why not conduct the same analysis of the statement in Romans 13?

For the best resolution of any ambiguity here (which I’ll admit remains somewhat speculative and incomplete), we have to look to the words and actions of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 22:15-22, when confronted by the Pharisees about whether Caesar’s tax should be paid, Jesus tells them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Here, Jesus clearly separates temporal rulership from divine rulership. What’s more, if the interpolated punctuation accurately reflects the rhetoric employed, Jesus has set temporal rule and divine rule in contrast or opposition to one another.

If we want to put a fine point on it, we might refer to Mark 9:37, where Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Or Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Here we might also comment that Jesus Christ, as Messiah, defied messianic expectations by refusing to foment military overthrow of Roman (and generally foreign) dominance. There are several viable interpretations for this–nonviolence, a lack of interest in immediate temporal affairs over divine and eternal ones, a theological statement through choice of action that comments on how the Jews might have misunderstood God (especially those in the apocalyptic schools of thought of the time). I tend to believe that Jesus’s focus on love and mercy says everything it needs to about the evaluation of temporal power. Combined with Paul’s words on Romans 13 on love that follow the argument for obeying authority, I think there’s plenty here to support the stance that Jesus’s words (and actions) tell us not just that we ought to oppose unjust authorities of the world, but that we ought to do so peacefully whenever that is possible.

If we look to Jesus’ actions in driving out the money changers at the Temple, we see that (related in Matthew 22:12-13, but also in Mark 11:15-18 and Luke 19:45-47) Jesus does not shy away from taking action against those who abuse their position–though the extent to which there is any real “violence” in this act is highly debatable, as I’ve explored somewhat in my series, “The End of Violence.”

When we look more completely at the statements of Romans 13, comparing it to other parts of the scriptures, looking to our own traditions and to our experiences of rulership in history and even in the modern world we know, and when we apply logic to prioritize ideas that are contradictory (or at least not readily in line with one another), we see that we must take the position that Paul’s statement in Romans 13:1 needs to be read as speaking to a specific situation and time, needs to be nuanced, or needs to be rejected altogether in light of the example of Christ and our call to love our neighbors–especially when loving our neighbors requires standing against injustice.

Would that anyone who wants to support an argument using scripture would take such a broad and careful approach before relying on a single verse at face value!

Pilgrimage, Day 10: Life and Death

For the previous entry, click here.

In contrast to our evening at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre yesterday evening, we started our morning at Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem where the angels are said to have appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site we visited in particular is a Franciscan chapel (the Franciscans are the custodians of most of the Christian holy sites that are not co-governed by multiple Christian denominations) built near the ruins of a Byzantine church.

It’s impossible to locate the site of the angels’ appearance with any certainty, of course, and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is rapidly expanding into the few actual fields remaining in the area.

Dr. Beck took this time to speak to us about the popular misunderstanding of the location of Jesus’s birth. I had known that Jesus was more likely born in a cave than the barn-like structure often depicted, but this talk filled in many details. First of all, a manger is not a building, but a device for storing food or water for animals. This made perfect sense to me; “manger” is French for “to eat.”

I hear it often mentioned (and have said myself) that there’s a translation error naming Jesus and Joseph as carpenters, because there are few trees in Israel. That’s true in its point: there are very many trees in Israel, but few of a type and size that would yield construction-grade wood for structures. This is one reason the remains of so many Biblical sites can be seen today–they were built in stone. Wooden barns like we tend to think of in the U.S. (or parts of Europe) simply were not a thing for the Israelites. You may recall that David formed an alliance with the king of Tyre that involved the delivery of the “cedars of Lebanon” for the construction of his palace (and later the Temple). But I digress.

There were two types of mangers commonly used in 1st Century Israel. The first, made of stone, was for holding water. The second, made of wood, was for holding barley and other grains used to feed the sheep raised by the families in the vicinity of Bethlehem (and elsewhere across Judea). Some mangers were “hybrids”, a stone base with a wooden fixture that could be added to the top to convert from water storage to food storage and back again. It’s likely that Jesus was placed in something like this after his birth. But let’s go back to that cave thing:

As it turns out, many homes built in the south of Israel (Judea proper, we might say), were constructed over a cave–the cave was used for storage or, more often, for the stabling of the animals husbanded by the family. This protected the sheep or cows from heat and cold as well as predators when they were not out grazing. It provided the added benefit of giving some heat to the home above, as living creatures huddled in a small area tend to generate lots of heat.

So, Mary likely gave birth to Jesus in a cave under the home of a relative–that’s where the animals would be and that’s where a manger would be in which a baby could be lain. But what about that inn?

As it turns out, this is really a mistranslation. Judean homes of common people in the 1st Century were usually constructed with one central room and a narrow hallway-like second chamber that was mostly partitioned off from the main room and which was used for guests to sleep in. The (Greek) word used in Luke can sometimes mean inn, but it more often is used to signify this guest room. Elsewhere in that Gospel, the Luke author uses the more common word for a traveler’s hotel, so we know that that word is in his vocabulary. It’s most likely, then, that Luke is telling us that Mary and Joseph’s relatives claimed to have no guest room for them (I note that my NIV translation uses “no guest room” rather than the oft-cited “no room at the inn.”

After Beit Sahour, we went into Bethlehem proper. Like Beit Sahour, Bethlehem is in Palestine, which means we traveled through checkpoints and beyond the massive security wall between official Israel and the territories it occupies. We interacted with a number of Palestinian Christians over the course of the day and found the Palestinian people, regardless of their faith, to be kind and hospitable.

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity. In 614 CE, the Persians invaded the area that is now Israel. Wherever they found them, the invaders destroyed Christian churches, of which there were many. Constantine’s mother, Helena, built the early Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Ascension (on the Mount of Olives) and the Church of the Nativity. The Byzantines built many more. Of all of them, the Church of the Nativity was the only one to be spared. Why?

The three wise men. As you likely remember, the “wise men” were magi. Magi (s. magos) is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”, just as “wise man” is the origin of the word “wizard” (though in a slightly more roundabout way. The magi were Zoroastrians, probably priests of the religion in Persia at the time and had a reputation for mystical arts–astronomy and astrology among them. This jibes with the idea of the three magi following a star to find Jesus despite his being in a faraway place.

Anyway, in 614, the Church of the Nativity had a mosaic above the entrance depicting Persian holy men. When the invaders saw this, they decided not to destroy the church out of respect for their earlier brethren. St. Helena’s version of the church had not lasted until 614; the church had been destroyed in the Samaritan Revolts of the early 6th Century and then rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 565.

We were able to travel into the cave–complete with manger–where Jesus is said to have been born. Again, we can’t be sure of the specific location, but the tradition from very early on (Justin Martyr visited as a pilgrim sometime around 100 CE) that the cave is located in the area carries great weight for the general locality.

We switched gears after that and visited the Herodium, the massive fortress palace built by Herod the Great (and site of his tomb). The engineering marvels there rival Caesarea Maritima: Herod didn’t think the mountain (read: large hill) on which he wanted to build the structure was big enough, so he took the top off of a neighboring mountain/hill to build his site higher (and to provide a “skirt” of fill dirt around the outside of the main palace/fortress for additional strength). The Herodium proper was a circular fortress five stories high with a tower seven stories high; the interior contained a Roman-style hot bath, a garden open to the sky and surrounded by column-lined porches, massive cisterns and a marble staircase leading inside. On the hill below the fortress was a Greco-Roman-style theatre (later filled in when Herod built his tomb). At the base, a second palace for guests and a swimming pool. Water had to be brought about three-and-a-half miles (past farmer’s fields) to supply the pool.

The Herodium was meant to be seen from Jerusalem–another sign of Herod’s grandeur and dominance. When Jesus told the Disciples on the Mount of Olives that they could command a mountain to through itself into the sea were they to pray with enough faith, he was likely pointing at the Herodium–a mountain that had already moved and that was within eyesight of the Dead Sea (which tradition held was the proper place to dispose of pagan and unholy things).

As magnificent as the Herodium was (and its ruins remain impressive, though no where as near as the complete building would be, even in our own time), its bookends easily overshadowed it. Being in the area where the Savior incarnated into this world carries a certain gravitas, as one would suspect. And our late-afternoon experience moved nearly as much.

We visited the Tent of Nations, winner of this past year’s World Methodist Peace award. The Tent of Nations (whose motto carved in an entrance stone is the picture on this post) is the result of the unshakeable faith of the Nassar family. The 100-acre plot in the West Bank known as Daher’s Vineyard (after family patriarch Daher Nassar) was first registered to the Nassar family under the Ottoman Empire (when few people bothered to register their land because doing so required the payment of exorbitant taxes). The family maintained the land’s registration under the British Mandate, the nation of Jordan, and eventually under Israel.

In 1991, the Israeli government attempted to confiscate Daher’s Vineyard as “state land.” Despite the Nassers’ ability to demonstrate a clear chain of title and right of ownership, they remain to this day engaged in a lawsuit with the Israeli state in the Israeli military courts (which handle matters in occupied territory such as the West Bank). The Israeli government has tried to take the land through misuse of legal process, through purchase (the details of which mimic the tale of Naaman’s Vineyard quite closely), and through the surrounding of the land with five Israeli settlements. Those settlers have attempted to oust the Nassers from their land through the threat of violence, through general harassment, and through the destruction of crop trees, the Nassers’ livelihood (and which take at least two years and sometimes as many as ten to replace through the planting and raising to fruition of a replacement).

The Nassers are Palestinian Christians. Their response to repeated oppression is the kind that only faith can engender. First, they decided that they would eschew all violence in any response, because violence only begets violence and they intend to love even their enemies. Second, they refuses to think of themselves as victims. Third, they refused to leave.

This required them to find a fourth way, one heavily inspired by their belief in Jesus. The first tenet is that they “refuse to be enemies.” The second is that they use avoid violence through creativity and pursuit of justice in the courts. Israel has prevented any utilities from being provided to the farm, so the Nassers have built large raincatching systems and cisterns to store water for both irrigation and domestic use. They had no power, so they set up solar panels to provide electricity where needed. The Israeli government refuses to issue them permits to build new buildings on the ground, so they have built into the caves on the property to provide additional housing, storage rooms, and spaces for their programs.

If such a noble and peaceful defiance of oppressive power is not enough, the Nassers turned Daher’s Vineyard into the “Tent of Nations,” supporting cross-cultural discussion between Jews, Muslims and Christians; providing summer programs for children to learn about recycling, sustainable farming, and caring for Creation in ways that help them to feel self-empowered and to make the choice to resist oppression through creative solutions rather than violence; and to generally be that “City on a Hill” that both inspires and instructs others so that they might move to a peaceful dialogue and respect for one another than eventually leads to some resolution of the tragic conflict between (some) Palestinians and (largely) the Israeli government.

I cannot say enough about how inspired I was in the two hours we spent at Daher’s Vineyard. Their website is http://www.tentofnations.org. I invite you to go learn more about them, consider donating for the planting of additional trees in the vineyard (which both help strengthen their claim to the land under Israeli law and provide support for the family and the programs run by Tent of Nations), or even consider volunteering to help with harvest and/or programs. They have a place for you to stay on site and provide room and board to their volunteers, who they are happy to take for–as they told us–“a day or a year.”

For the next entry, click here.

Protecting the Religious Right (to Discriminate)

Yesterday, the Texas Senate passed a bill that allows religious-based organizations involved in foster care to discriminate in the provision of services based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” It previously passed the House and there is no reason to suspect that Governor Abbott will not sign House Bill 3859 into law.

As an attorney, (but not a constitutional law attorney, mind you), I have a strong suspicion that this bill violates the Constitution’s protections of religion, right to privacy and, as only recently affirmed by SCOTUS, protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. We shall see.

But this is not a post about the law. This is a post about my views on the matter as a Christian and a foster parent. I’m appalled, but unfortunately not surprised.

There has been a growing movement among conservative Christians–especially in Texas, I think, though my lens is distorted since that’s where I am–to protect the right to refuse people services based on religious belief. This is both theologically untenable and ridiculously counterproductive from the standpoint of evangelism and discipleship.

House Bill 3859 allows faith-based organizations to refuse to: (1) place children with certain families because of the family’s differing religious views; (2) place children with persons or families whose homosexuality–as the Methodist Church would put it–is incompatible with Christian teaching; and (3) provide certain services (abortions or vaccines, for instance) to children in their care. There is no question that this legislation is motivated by conservative Christian lobby groups.

I hear about this bill and what the Christian churches involved in lobbying for the bill say through the legislation is: “My right to force my values on other people is more important than helping children without homes. I want to help children without homes, but only if I can do it my way without any risk of repercussions.”

That is not a witness to the Christ who tells us, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Nota bene that the statement does not read, “whatever you do for the least of these who believe in me just like you do….”

The Texas foster care system has been judged by a court to be illegally deficient in the protection and services provided to foster children. There is a shortage of foster parents and a surplus of children who need homes.  Is this really the time to move for the right to exclude foster parents who are otherwise qualified and vetted to take in and care for children from “the system?”

As you’ve likely guessed, I’m pretty passionate about my own interpretations of the Christian faith. But I’m also not so egotistical and prideful as to have surety of my religious understanding so as to completely discredit, disregard and disrespect those of other beliefs–Christian or otherwise. Nevertheless, there comes a point where I feel that the hypocrisy is so blatant that I cannot help but take offense and I am filled with a righteous-seeming anger that the actions of other people acting under the banner of Christianity are besmirching my faith and sabotaging my own ability to evangelize and disciple to the world. It’s an uphill battle when you have to start a conversation about your faith with, “No, that’s not really what Christianity is about. I promise.”

Just last night I was in a church meeting where the perennial question, “How do we get more millennials to come to church?” came up. The best answer: stop doing stuff like this! Stop putting self-affirmation in front of helping people and making the world a better place? Millennials smell hypocrisy like a bloodhound tracking a scent, not that they need to be able to when judgment is thrown before mercy in such blatant manner! People are leaving the church (or never giving it a thought in the first place) not because of outdated furniture, color schemes or worship styles but because some make of it an instrument of oppression and transgression rather than one of confession and profession.

As a foster parent, how dare the government spend time trying to exclude some of my willing helpmates rather than actually fixing a deplorably broken system for the benefit of the children? It makes my life tougher even as I’m trying to help. That’s not good for an already-overburdened system.

There. That’s enough said about being appalled. Why am I not surprised? Because this is just one more milestone on the current trajectory of many Christians. We see this in the demand for people to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and talk about the “war on Christmas” or the “war on Christians.” A little secret: no one needs to make war on Christianity for the relevance and the effectiveness of the church to dwindle into nothing–we’re doing a great job of that ourselves.

More broadly, it’s an indication of current trends in American culture–let’s blame others so that we can discriminate against them rather than truly trying to solve the suffering of the world.

When our priorities are correct, the revelation of our faith in Jesus comes naturally and is inevitable. When we make our goal protectionism over all else, I’m afraid that Jesus turns away from us in shame. Can you blame him?

A Season of Rest (Or Perhaps Activity)

I haven’t posted in a long while about our foster situation, and those who follow the blog to keep up with that aspect of life for K and I deserve to hear the news that there is.

There’s not much. We’ve decided that it’s best for us to refrain from taking a new placement on until K has finished seminary. Since she’s working full-time and going to school (and will have to commute to Dallas a few days each week starting next Fall!), it’s best for us that we wait until she’s got less stress and activity going on and we’re both a bit more settled. I don’t understand how she does it as it is except for the fact that she’s an amazing woman.

We will provide respite care for other foster families on occasion–essentially taking a child or set for a weekend or a few days when their foster family needs a break or has to travel. This allows us to stay as an “active” family and not have to start the entire application process over again when we’re ready for our next placement.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to enjoy the time that’s just the two of us (and our Corgi Berwyn, who may be the neediest child ever). We’ve been enjoying the opportunity to be “adulting”, which for us does not mean the burden of living up to all of life’s responsibilities and adult demands but doing the things you don’t have permission to do when you’re a kid–like staying up late to watch TV and eating candy for dinner. It’s a word we’re taking back. I’ll let you know if we have any success with that.

It’s a year-and-a-half of a last hurrah before we transition again to the chaos and joy of raising children.

So, if you don’t see much on this site about children for a while, that’s why. Of course, you don’t have to have kids in your own home to be learning about them, and if I have any interesting experiences I’ll be sure to share them here…

Gone

Abe and Bess have left us. Yesterday, K and I took them to the Child Protective Services center to drop them off so that they could be delivered to their grandparents, who are taking custody of them for the rest of the pendency of the CPS suit and perhaps beyond. Regardless, they are no longer “ours.”

They never were, really. I don’t mean that to say that they weren’t for all intents and purposes our children while we had them—that will always be true. What I mean is that we never had anything more than a temporary and ultimately fleeting possessory interest in them in the greater scheme of things. But does any parent really have anything more in any child? I’m not sure that life is predictable enough to say “yes” to that.

We knew that this was coming since late last week, but we were waiting for things to be finalized for the drop-off. So, days before, we’d packed most of the kids’ things into boxes and stashed those boxes into our guest room to keep the kids from wondering what’s going on and getting upset. Those items that were theirs that they frequently used or looked for we left out for them. We tried to continue the routine, knowing full well that it was the end.

Late Monday we got the call that we’d be dropping them off the next day. Bess had an eye appointment scheduled for Tuesday morning that CPS asked us to keep, so, apart from a midday meeting, I took the day off to be present for the process. K took the whole day off as well.

Bess was extremely sweet during the doctor’s appointment and very calm, even while they dilated her eyes. When we started to leave the office, though, she had a nuclear-intensity meltdown. My guess is that her over-enlarged pupils caused her pain and confusion when she hit the sunlight. Regardless, it was something of a cranky day for her, and K and I both wondered if somehow she knew.

We were supposed to go to the CPS center at 2 p.m. but were asked to delay until 3. At about 2:15 we loaded up into the car. K had already put the boxes and the last of the stuff into the trunk; Bess hadn’t asked about the bags piled near the door earlier in the day and the last of the loading of things happened while Bess was napping.

Per our usual, vacation bible school songs played over the car stereo while we made our way down the highway. Everything seemed normal. Except for us. K and I exchanged glances that wordlessly communicated the unease we both felt.

The experience itself was surreal. The drop-off occurred at the same facility where the kids had their biweekly visitation with parents, so even as we walked the last few steps of our journey together, neither Bess (who might have) or Abe (who wouldn’t have picked up on anything, I think) knew that anything was different. With our CPS social worker, we walked them up to the playroom in the building and turned them over without any fanfare to the staff there. Everything moved quick, and we didn’t upset the kids, so there were no long hugs, no “last words” and nothing to mark the significance of the event.

We told the kids we love them and said “bye,” just like we’d be back in a few hours to pick them back up. Bess smiled at us and waived, and then the door was closed and they were gone. That stung some. I don’t know what I expected, but the lack of closure was palpable, really.

After that, we unceremoniously moved the kids’ stuff from our car to the social worker’s and headed home.

When we arrived at home, emotionally exhausted, we determined (mostly at K’s insistence, though it turns out her insistence was wise) to put all of the kid stuff into the kids’ rooms and close the doors. We tried not to dwell on the days’ events.

This morning, though, when I got up (a little later than I’ve become accustomed to, admittedly) and prepared to go to court, the house felt empty. Gone were the little voices, gone the plaintive cries and giggles of joy that had filled our early mornings, gone the busy rush of preparing children for school.

K received a call this morning from our CPS worker to let us know that the drop-off to the family went well last night and that the grandparents were very grateful for everything we’ve done. They asked to have our phone number so they could let us know how the kids are doing going forward; we of course agreed.

That last bit, even communicated to us second-hand, helped substantially. I’d been turning over in my head lately thoughts about what it really means to foster as a Christian, and one of the defining things that I kept returning to is that the Christian ought to be there to build up everyone involved—even the parents from whom the children were removed (if safe for the children), because they’re hurting, too. We should make the whole process about others and not ourselves to the extent possible.

Easier said than done, and while a part of me has a good feeling for doing what’s good and right (I think), I’m still a mix of emotions. Part of me is relieved that they’re gone, jealous of my time as I tend to be. But part of me feels the loss deeply.

Still, I have to say the worst thing about the aftermath (or even once others knew that the kids would be leaving us) has been the looks of pity (it’s probably actually sympathy, but from my point of view it’s currently hard to tell the difference) and excessive praise for what good people K and I are for fostering. We’d just rather not hear about it; we know that we’re not entirely selfless in the matter—we first got involved to adopt children of our own, after all.

We’ll take some time for ourselves to decide what the best next step is for us, and what our timeline looks like for us to start the process again. In the meantime, I should have a lot more time available to write!

First Day of School

Maybe “school” isn’t the right word for it; at five months (Abe) and almost two-and-a-half (Bess), there’s not going to be a lot of hardcore academics. There will, I’m sure, be the learning of things  just as important–how to make friends, how to deal with the unexpected, how to adapt to unfamiliar places (already a competency for them).

Yesterday afternoon we got the call that the children had (finally) been approved to attend the Montessori School where we’d wanted to put them. Some background:

One of my partners at the law firm has her son there in the nursery; her daughter just graduated into kindergarten from the school. On top of that, this partner’s husband is a Montessori-certified teacher himself, so if it gets the stamp of approval from him, that speaks volumes. We toured the facility some months back before taking our placement and were well-satisfied.

Here’s the rub: private school is expensive. The school was solidly out of the price range for a church-worker and a young attorney with a start-up law firm. But, foster children are sometimes eligible for pre-public school education to be paid for, and the Montessori School just happened to be one of the two places approved by CPS for such funding.

When we first got our placement, the original CPS worker had told us that she’d filed the NCI (the funding program) paperwork for us, but that it could be 30 to 45 days before we’d get approved. “No problem,” we said and set about using vacation time to each each work half days in the office and half days at home.

This week K was bound for Dallas to attend internship orientation for her seminary program. We knew this in advance and hoped that the NCI would clear before then.

Thus, it came as a shock when we found out mid-week last week that the NCI paperwork had in fact not been submitted. Fortunately, we now have a good team behind us–our DePelchin clinician has been excellent all the way through and we now have a solid long-term CPS worker who knows the ropes.

Our CPS worker faxed K the paperwork we needed to fill out the same day it was discovered that the first worker had not submitted anything, and we were assured that things would be expedite as much as possible.

That left me taking off three days of work this week to manage the kids. I had great help from our parents (with whom it was nice to get to spend the time), but it was still exhausting. So, when we got word yesterday that they could start today, we were both relieved. I’m finally back to the office full-time, where spare moments can be devoted to writing instead of chasing little ones. At the same time, it does feel strange to spend so much time apart from them today.

I’m excited to find out how the first day went (and excited to have another full day in the office tomorrow)!

Some Clarity

A few weeks ago, K and I met with the ad litem in the kids’ case (the attorney appointed by the court to represent the best interests of the children). He’s a good guy and provided us with a lot more clarity about the situation than CPS has.

Unfortunately, the news was not the news we wanted to hear. Not only does the ad litem believe the children will be going back to family, but he indicated that they would likely go back well before the twelve months for the permanency plan is complete.

We’re likely to have Abe and Bess for a few more months, but it is very unlikely that the two will be our “forever family,” as they say. The upside is that the ad litem believes there will be a safe place with family for the kids to return to: the situation was described to us as “a good family with a wayward daughter” (the mother of the children). That being the case, it probably is in the best interest of the children to return to family members who can love and care for them. But that will not make it easy to let go.

I’m not sure if knowing this far in advance is a good thing, either. Yes, it gives us time to prepare for the day when we will have to send the kids away; if worked through properly, that could prove very helpful. Conversely, if we don’t work through the impending loss in a positive way, it could be quite the opposite. Most of all, K and I must be careful not to guard our hearts too much–we need to give these kids all the love we can in the time that we have with them. And, nothing is done until it’s done. Despite the high likelihood that the kids will go back, nothing is a sure thing yet.

This puts K and I in the awkward position of needing to decide what our plan  will be in the likely event that the kids go back to family. We’ve started to discuss, but a plan is still in the works. We’ve decided it will be best to take some time off before accepting a new placement to make sure we’ve properly worked through our emotions. How much time has not been decided. With our available time away from work largely exhausted for the rest of the year, our next placement would need to be school-age children if we accept a placement sooner rather than later. If we want to try again with small kids, we’ll likely need to wait until 2017. No decision has been made about this.

In the meantime, we’re going to focus on getting and giving all the joy we can, continuing to strengthen our relationships with Abe and Bess and providing whatever we can to brighten their futures, whatever that future may be.

Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!

I should have expected that having children would be a study in the human need for control. Our training for foster care on trust-based relational intervention (TBRI), which K and I found very helpful, made sure that we understood that there would be issues of control and authority in raising children (how could there not be?). That said, the intellectual knowledge of the thing and the experience are two things separated by a sometimes expansive gulf.

And so, it should have been no surprise that I’d have to spend some time thinking about my own need for control—both in the microcosm of my relationships with my children and in regards to life in general.

We are not allowed to withhold food from the children as a tool of compliance or discipline—nor do I think that doing so would be constructive, effective or beneficial. But that doesn’t stop food from sometimes being a struggle. There are very few things that we’ve discovered that Bess doesn’t like to eat, which is a blessing in and of itself. Sometimes though, she tells us that she wants one thing and then changes her mind, or gets served something we know she likes and she demands something else. This sort of a struggle is frustrating, to say the least.

There are some things we don’t make available to Bess—we don’t give her soda (she came to us already familiar with drinking straight from the can) and we very much limit her access to sweets (making me quite a hypocrite given my own sweet tooth, but it’s a hypocrisy I can live with). Otherwise, when she’s hungry we feed her and she gets to eat until she’s full. We serve her a lot of fruit, yogurt, milk, cheese and other things, and now that she’s settled in a bit more we’re trying to focus the offerings to be as healthy as possible. But sometimes, she just wants Goldfish, and nothing else will do.

At times like this, my initial instinct is to refuse her. I took the time to make her something else to eat, and she ought to eat that, dammit! Both the training we received and common sense dictate that this is not a fight worth having. So why do I feel a need to “win” that fight rather than avoiding it altogether?

Concerned about my own parenting skills, I started reflecting on this. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about my own need for a semblance of control. Suddenly adding two kids to the picture has thrown everything in disarray—my schedule revolves around them and I have somehow to find the time to make a living and get some writing done. There’s not a great sense of control in my life overall at this juncture—though is there anything but an illusion of control in our lives ever, really?

I think that my desire to win arguments rather than focusing on the important stuff is about me trying to work out my own issues. Our parenting class instructor was wise to tell us to be on the lookout for exactly this sort of thing.

Perhaps above all, I tend to think of myself as someone who is more self-aware than most and, to a great degree, in control of himself to the extent that one can be. This experience has given me doubts about that self-conception.

At the end of the day, though, if I don’t learn from these experiences, I will certainly never have the kind of self-control I think that I do. So, I’m trying (“trying” being the operative word) to get over myself. If it’s not a matter of health and safety or some other significant issue, there’s not much reason for me to fight with Bess about it. Especially not so that I can feel I have some tiny amount of control in my life—there’s simply no there there (to borrow from Gertrude Stein).

When she wants to put on her own shoes, fine. When she wants things a certain way, we can do that. And when all she wants to eat is Goldfish—provided she’s generally still eating healthy—I’m just gonna give her the damn Goldfish. We’ll all be better for it, I think.