A Traveler’s Diary: First Day in Country

On September 29, 2012, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

I started this post this morning sitting at a coffee bar at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad, India, waiting with the team for the last leg of our travel to see our friend Jaya and all of the good things he is doing. The thirty hours of travel thus far are taking their toll, so I apologize in advance if my writing is a little incoherent. I rarely sleep well on planes.

The heat of the morning is already beginning to stir the hazy air, distorting the tail flashings of the planes sitting on the tarmac in the distance. All around me the terminal is abuzz with activity – janitors, wait staff, travelers, baggage handlers. But amid the din I still noticed workers stealing away for just a moment to catch up on the news or sit in the shade of a jetway to have a snack with friends as the stink of aviation fuel hangs pungent in the air.

I’ve been coming to India for over ten years now, and I am still struck at the triple espresso shot of concentrated humanity that I get when I arrive. So many people. So many lives. So many wills at work that it amazes me that the culture hasn’t reached a point of collective insanity. Perhaps it has, but the haze of sleep deprivation while I’m in country dulls my senses just enough to let it remain just out of apprehension.

But even amid the chaos there is design and things get done. We experienced that most recently on our shuttle ride between the international and domestic terminal and the fearless bus driver who drove headlong into a mass of oncoming headlights on a sometimes one-lane tramway. To the horror of the foreigners and the inattention of the nationals, he initiated toward the way-less-than-bus-sized space between two oncoming trucks and there is an indescribable, fluid process of challenge, collaboration and mutual yielding until all are back on their way.

And it happens way, way more than you would see in the U.S. It suggests to me that there is some kind of internal order amid all the chaos that is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that It would take more than the millennia that forged it to find out what had been really created.

Everyone is on campus now and quickly bedding down to start repaying their sleep debt. You’ll hear more about the delayed flight, the bus breakdown the iffy power grid and the flower pedal charged reception tomorrow. But I did want to drop you a quick line to tell you that it’s great to be back.

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. – St. Augustine

republished from cemindia.blogspot.com

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She Picked Me and She Picked Us

On September 20, 2012, in Life, Personal, by Chris

I’m taking a moment to celebrate today, and it’s an easy one to remember. It’s the day that two lives were completely and permanently woven into mine. It’s the day that life would (twice!) never be the same.

Four years ago tonight, I was a new husband. A year prior, I had basically surrendered to the possibility of lifelong bachelorhood, but it seemed that God had other ideas. Jocelyn and I met in December, 2007, and our tribes saw the magic before it became completely clear to us. We exchanged vows nine months later, fulfilling a prediction of one of Jocelyn’s mentors that it would happen before the summer was over. It’s amazing to look back and to see the design in it all – just to say, “thank you.”

Two years ago tonight, I was a new dad, scared spitless as I looked at my daughter under the oxygen tent in the NICU while my wife rested two floors below after a scary, premature birth. The future was so uncertain at that moment as the staff checked her for the myriad complications that can face a child with Down syndrome and we embarked on the months of preparation for the inevitable heart surgery ahead of us.

All I could do was croak out a meek “thank you” to God – at least for that moment – that my girls were safe.

But even in my fear, my soul was enriched by our ever-widening community (with representatives from four continents) praying in solidarity for Julia’s health and Jocelyn’s and my sanity. And many of those friendships still remain even after we got through the surgery in January 2011. (editor’s note – she just met with Dr. Weinhouse yesterday and he described her as “magnificently healthy”)

Moreover, as Julia’s life has unfolded over the last two years, a conviction that I clung to before she was born has slowly come into focus. Even through the frustrations of navigating the endless bureaucracies finding resources to help her reach her fullest potential, it is becoming more and more evident that it was no haphazard pairing and re-pairing of chromosomes that brought us together.

Just as God somehow moved in Jocelyn’s heart to choose this clueless guy to live out the rest of our lives together, I (perhaps foolishly) like to think that Julia somehow chose us. Her bright little spirit was tasked by God to teach Jocelyn and I how to love in a new way.

That learning process has often been a gut-wrenching one, especially now that Julia’s two-year-old willfulness has emerged. But the ancient covenant that is struck between parents and child still remains, and Jocelyn and I pray every day that God strip from us all that could get in the way of his dream for the life he has entrusted to us.

I am so glad for this day and so glad that Jocelyn chose me and Julia chose us.

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Dancing On

On September 3, 2012, in Julia's Journey, Personal, by Chris

The summer is nearly at an end, and we took in the waning hours of the Labor Day weekend with an art show and parade in nearby Franklin and some well deserved afternoon napping. Julia has been down for over two hours; and though she needs the rest, it’s always hard not to dread the implications that a late afternoon nap has on her nighttime routine.

Everyone who sees her says that Julia has grown so much. I’ve observed more than once that she looks more like a little girl than a baby now – her now frequent army crawling all over the house having lengthened her out some. She’s started to lose that marvelously squishy pudginess and those awesome and kissable “fat cuffs” on her wrists are starting to fade.

A lot has unfolded with this little girl over the summer – much of it makes me smile as I think about it. I have love watching her engage more and more and begin to truly understand the things we are saying to her. Jocelyn and I have had whole conversations lately spelling out the trigger words that get Julia excited, like “d-i-n-n-e-r” and “j-u-i-c-e”. She’s also starting to work on the hand signs for some of the songs her toy puppy sings (Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes is one of her favorites).

And of course, there is a lot of therapy. And it’s perhaps there that the more discouraging parts of the summer come out. Let me start by saying that it’s not her progress that’s disappointing – far from it. As I’ve explained in a previous post, we have to take care to let God and Julia determine who she is. But at the same time, Jocelyn and I work really hard removing as many barriers to her progress as possible. Despite our aspirations, it has felt like we’ve spent the entire summer coming up against one roadblock after another.

We have slowly been moving from wide-eyed ignorance into rueful realization when it comes to interacting with any institution – be it the state, the insurance companies or the school district. I know every parent out there – with typical kids or special needs – is smiling and shaking their head. Bear with me – I’m still new at this.

It started with being denied summer services from the school. Okay, not a big deal – happens all the time, we’re told (at least in our district). But it still felt like a kick in the gut. It was then that I started to understand what every parent feels when their child is denied something. “They don’t know our family! It’s MY job to deny my kid!”

We decided to roll the dice with our private insurance to bridge the gap over the summer. Success! Julia was approved for eight sessions and the work began in earnest. We got a lot of great tips from the therapists and an interesting new motivation. It seems that getting a child to walk “unlocks” a lot of other development – including speech. In fact, we were told that the speech therapists at the rehab facility don’t typically want to see kids who aren’t already walking since their progress is so much slower.

That little piece of info, along with the promise of assistance from Julia’s state supplemental insurance, ignited a little dream in the Cook family – one that I’ve articulated only a few times. We decided to go “all in” and get our Julia walking by Easter.

I know that setting a goal like that breaks the aforementioned maxim of letting God and your kid determine your kid; but the way I thought about it was that it wasn’t a goal for Julia as much as it was for us. Let’s pull out all the stops and commit ourselves to getting her the help she needs to really fly. If we miss the mark, she’ll still be a lot farther ahead than if we sit in relative complacency. So I dared to share that dream with a couple of the therapists – one from the school and another from the rehab facility.

And I got silence. I’m not sure what that means.

We got another disappointment or two as well. Our private insurance denied any further therapy, saying that Julia had a “developmental delay” that will not show significant enough improvement within the window of time that their policy demands. Not more than a week later, we were told by the rehab facility that the state supported therapy would have to be suspended indefinitely since the state was not paying providers for their services. The last session was a week ago.

We still had our head up, though, because our original mission was accomplished. We had bridged the gap in services over the summer and set Julia up to really excel when Early On services start up in a few days.

In the end, we are still going to work. Hard. And we will have to continue to give our little girl to God every day – sometimes more than once – and trust that his plan for her is totally, totally good.

I watched Julia this afternoon in a new ritual we have of turning on the iPod and dancing together with joyful abandon (sorry for the image I just put in your head of me dancing). I envy her carefree spirit as she wiggles and twists to her favorite tunes, and I can still hear her elated giggle in my head as I write. I’m sure I’ll spend another day worrying about whether we’re doing enough – it seems to be hard wired in me.

But Julia has other concerns at the moment: “What songs are we going to play and are we having grilled cheese for dinner?” Her musical taste biases more toward Sara Barielles and Andy Grammer, but any catchy tune with a good beat will suffice. For now and for the future, I’m happy to do the worrying while Julia dances on.

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Letter from a Bride

On July 17, 2012, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

I got an email last week that I was not looking forward to. It had been four years since I officiated the wedding of a young couple at my church – I’ll just call them Bill and Kimberly. On paper, you would have thought they had everything going for them. They were both professionals from good families, had good incomes, and they had successfully navigated our rigorous but not overly burdensome premarital process. It seemed all of the “boxes” had been checked off.

I first realized there was a problem about a year later when I got a call out of the blue from Bill asking for some perspective. We talked, and he dropped out of sight until more recently. Another call for help, and we intervened. We got them help – assessments, counseling, but nothing seemed to be able to stay their dogged march toward divorce. Last I heard, they were talking to lawyers instead of counselors.

But then I got the email from Kimberly. The words stung my heart as I wondered if there was something else I could have done:

Chris,

Today has been a day of mourning-for the promises we didn’t keep, for the “what might have been,” for the loss of what we dreamed our marriage would become. I wanted to thank you for believing in us even though our marriage didn’t make it. You were right-it hurts more than I could have ever dreamed. I believe that everything is in God’s hand now.

I am sorry I let you down. You did such a beautiful job at our cerremony. I hope all is well with you and if it is not too much trouble, that you say a little prayer for both Bill and I as today would have been our 4 year anniversary.

Love, Kimberly

I prayed. And the thought didn’t leave me alone for days. A marriage I had sanctioned in my capacity as a pastor had come apart and the collateral damage was everywhere. The community had taken another wound, and the potential of what could have been was lost.

But I still needed to answer back, and the words just wouldn’t come. How does one truly offer hope to someone who feels so hopeless? A few days later, I offered what I could; and I hope the convictions were offered as humbly as they were deeply held. I hope that the words that follow were of some help to her and will be for others:

Hello, Kimberly –

I got your message last week and have been wrestling with God ever since regarding how I should respond. I hope you didn’t interpret my silence as indifference. I truly do hurt for you and Bill.

I remember that marvelous day four years ago. You were both full of hope and anticipation as all couples are on their wedding day, and there was so much to believe in that it would have been hard not to be optimistic. The human heart longs for a taste of something transcendent, and people could see it in the promises that you made to each other. That is what made it a beautiful ceremony – not me. Thanks again for asking me to be a part of it at any rate.

It’s always humbling to officiate a moment so pivotal in the lives of people; and I’m sure it is hellish – in every sense of the word – to feel like all of those promises are falling apart. There are few things that reveal creation’s tearing asunder like a marriage that seems to be at an end.

But Kimberly, you didn’t let me down. I hurt for you and Bill and there have been a lot of mistakes between your wedding day and now, but my respect and affection for you both has not weakened. I do, however, want to offer you some encouragement and a little vision for the season ahead of you, so I hope you’ll hear the challenges that I offer you:

God is not done with you – don’t be done with him. It would be so easy, right this moment, to write off your entire life as an epic failure that God has utterly given up on. That’s what our our enemy is whispering into your heart as he offers some kind of anesthetic to deaden the pain – be it alcohol, work, food, or another relationship. Even though God’s distance feels very real right now, don’t return the “abandonment” favor and don’t try to step out of the pain too quickly. Properly applied and with the right mix of encouragers around you (have you talked to Eva lately?), pain can be a misunderstood friend that can give clues to the deeper questions to which only God has the answers. Keep honestly talking with someone safe, stay open to what God wants to speak into your life, and you’ll be on your way.

Remember that this is but one chapter in the story you and God are creating together. This is where you have an opportunity to redeem the pain that you’re feeling now. But it takes a shift in your outlook from one of a victim to that of a student. When the time comes, God will give you the courage to take a long look at your mistakes. And you know what? It’ll be okay. You’ll actually find out that brokenness is where God finds all of us, but that’s not where he wants us to stay. And it begins with the terrifying but necessary question, “What was my part in this?” That’s the first step in the new chapter of your story – out of the darkness of selfishness and pain and into scary but ultimately freeing light of God’s truth. It’s a hard thing coming to terms with how messed up we are, but that thorny truth is overcome with endless love and the power to become different if we yield ourselves to that love. That’s called grace – the power to do immeasurably more than our direct effort could ever accomplish – and heaven is waiting to pour it into you as you initiate with Ultimate Good.

You’re right – your marriage and ultimately your life is in God’s hands. And there is no more trustworthy place for it to be. It will be up to you – every day and sometimes moment by moment – to keep it there. The healing path before you is counterintuitive and counter-cultural. There will be moments when you will want to turn back to the familiar choices and habits that got you here, but God (and I) need you to find that healing so that you can encourage someone else when the time comes.

But in the meantime, I want you to know that I and many others are available. Stay in there. It will get better.

– Chris

And if it isn’t too much trouble, please remember Bill and Kimberly in your prayers tonight. Thanks for listening.

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A Year (and a Lifetime) Ago

On June 12, 2012, in Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

Tonight I was reminded again that sometimes in the crush of the day to day, I need to remember to sit and be grateful every now and again.

It started innocently enough. I was dealing with a typical “first world” problem and rearranging some stuff in our refrigerator so that I could somehow wedge more stuff in. I was in the middle of marveling over how many different mustards we had when my eye was caught by a small brown bottle in one of those shelves in the refrigerator door.

It was the Enalapril – a medicine that we gave Julia after her surgery to protect the delicate work that the surgeon had done on her heart valves. We stopped giving it to her after we got the okay from Dr. Weinhouse last May. That was over a year ago.

But for just a moment, as Jocelyn finished cleaning up from dinner and getting ready to meet a friend for coffee, it all came flooding back.

I sometimes marvel at how seldom I think about those first intense months of Julia’s life when the needs of little girl now sleeping happily upstairs utterly overtook our household. But I marvel all the more at the little touchstones that God puts in my path to remember and say “thank you”.

It took a small brown bottle of long-expired medicine to remind me of the nights of sacrifice common to all new parents, painted over with a thin watercolor tint of uncommon terror as we painstakingly documented every milliliter of fortified milk that she took in. Staying mindful of the 150 kilocalories per kilo of body weight per day target that the docs had set for a healthy weight gain, we celebrated when she was able to fight through the fatigue of a failing heart and take in a whopping sixty milliliters in one feeding. And it often felt like the world was going to end when she spit it up like any normal baby does from time to time.

But we stayed even more mindful of the drugs that kept her comfortable before her surgery and protected her heart after we brought her home. Dosing, timing and praying to God that she wouldn’t hurl it up after we gave it to her. Dr. Weinhouse told us in so many words (and out of his love and concern for us) to chill out a little bit, and toward the end we started to.

But before too much longer, it was done. May 30th, 2011. Julia took what we pray was her last dose of heart medicine for a long, long time.

And as you can tell a year later, she is thriving. Now we have a whole boatload of new challenges: therapies to get her strong and mobile (not much longer!), negotiating with the school’s special education department for services over the summer (no dice) and thinking through the implications of the selection of a new school superintendent. But for all of the challenges, we find ourselves enjoying the present far more, even as we prepare for her future.

But sometimes it’s important to remember what has passed, remember God’s presence in it, and say “thank you”.

Oh yeah, and remember to clean out the fridge a little more often!

Good to be back…

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