Editor’s note: As strange as this might seem, Julia’s formal educational career starts today at the three year old preschool class at our local elementary school. I’ve been anticipating and dreading this day for the entire summer, especially in the light of the wrangling we have been in with the special education department of our school district. What follows is a letter to my daughter on her first day of school…

Hello Julia –

First of all, I want to tell you how much I love you and what a blessing you are to your mom and I. You have made our lives richer and more beautiful simply by being who you are, and I wouldn’t change that for anything!

I want to start the story I am going to tell you with a picture I took while we were on vacation in June down in Washington D.C. We went down to the National Mall to look around and at that moment were at the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many of his quotes are carved into the marble walls of the monument.

We came up on this particular wall as a bunch of high school students were posing in front of it for pictures. As they walked away, laughing and talking, we were left alone for a moment. The idea for the photo started out as kind of a lark, but I had no idea of the impact it would have on me. Your mom leaned you up against the wall and dove out of the frame and called out, “How big is Julia?” You absolutely beamed as you threw your hands up in triumph, and I got the shot.

And then I cried. Hard.

Let me tell you why…

It’s been really frustrating sometimes getting you the help we think you deserve, sweetie. It’s understandable in some ways, I suppose. You’re our kid. We see you all the time and share some of the most intimate moments of life with you and God has revealed to us – like a bazillion times – just how incredible you are. That’s a hard thing to make institutions that were created with the intent of helping understand. Many of them have limited resources and opaque motivations for what they do with those resources. To them, you are a problem to be solved instead of an adventure to be lived out.

No more than a week before I snapped that picture, your mom and I were in a meeting with some officials from the school. We went in with an idea for what was best for your long-term future and, since we were told that we were a part of the team, we thought we would be heard. I’m not sure why we believed that, because we had been frustrated by this crew more than once in the past.

We had to be constantly vigilant over the slow degradation of services that you were entitled to over the course of the school year. You needed physical and occupational therapy. They sent a special education teacher and basically told us with a straight face that all of your goals for walking and eating could be fulfilled by this teacher with “consultation from the therapists.” They called it a “Primary Service Provider Model.” I called it bankrupt.

And yet, we went into that meeting with a proposal in mind (and a very nice lunch in hand). It was quite simple: place you in a general education setting at your home elementary school with your typical peers and a preschool teacher with twelve years of special education experience. If, after a month or two, it was decided that you were struggling in that environment, we would reconvene the team with a mea culpa and another lunch to figure out a new plan.

To shoot for the stars and have to make a change would not have been a failure. The failure would have been never giving you the opportunity. We knew that this was the intent of the federal law that was written for you – to try you first in the least restrictive environment and adjust from there.

The meeting lasted almost three hours. And it didn’t go the way we had hoped. The team from the school had their agenda and everyone had their script. It’s as if the whole thing had been laid out before we even got there. It’s as if we weren’t really a part of the team – just the recipients of a very high pressure sell job. The consensus of that team was that you needed a special education class, and they spent over an hour laboriously making the case.

But even after the grueling walk through the data that was presented, I still had the naiveté to believe that we could come to a compromise. But then the Special Education Supervisor (who has since vacated the position) informed us that the proposal was an “all or nothing” proposition. We either accepted the team’s recommendation in its entirety or none of it. If we refused the recommendation, the school would be released from its obligation to provide you with an education program and the therapy that you needed.

Now, anyone with even a basic understanding of special education law would know that that was patently untrue. The supervisor knew that it was untrue. Julia, that’s called negotiation in bad faith. I know, because I looked it up.

We left that meeting pretty deflated, but we got our mess together and asserted ourselves a little more and came to an agreement. The school would remove the social and educational goals and not be held accountable for your progress in those areas, but would still provide your physical, occupational and speech therapy.

We could have lawyered up to fight over the principal of the matter, because we still believe the special education team is shirking its responsibility. But we decided sometimes it’s better to concede the battle so that a greater good can be pursued. Bottom line – we’re in it for the long haul, and we’re trusting that God is directing us about which hills to die on. And sometimes it’s better to be collaborative than contentious.

I’ll be very honest with you. Sometimes it gets tiring running our heads against what feels like a brick wall day after day. But Julia, your mom and I will do it a thousand times more; because every day we get reminders that that there are people out there – even in the school system – who see the adventure in you more than they see the challenges.

We have spent time with the team of people who will meet you every week at preschool. Your teacher and the support staff were rooting for us as we considered options over the summer and gave us space to make an informed decision, but were really glad when we decided to partner with them. They’ve rolled out the red carpet for you and have frankly been the most collaborative team of people we’ve encountered. Only a week ago, we spent time with them strategizing how we could design the best place for you to learn.

Even at the preschool orientation the other day, we were walking down the hall to leave and a couple of older girls peeked out of the gym, and looking at your walker, asked if you had been hurt. Your mom matter-of-factly replied that you had Down syndrome and just needed a little help walking. The girls kept saying, over and over again, how cute you were and seemed really excited to have you as a part of the rhythm of the school. It’s clear to your mom and I that the staff of your school is creating a really positive culture.

Then there’s your little friend, Brooklyn. I’ve written before that your mom and I can handle the trials that come with Ds – educational, medical and otherwise. But the thing that really scares us is whether you are going to have life-giving friendships beyond us. God sent us a pretty clear messenger a few days ago in a little towheaded girl you know from daycare.

Brooklyn sought you out at church last Sunday, gave you a hug and a kiss, and in the purest and clearest voice imaginable, proudly proclaimed to the world that you were her friend. I still have to catch my breath as I remember that moment and the deeper message that it enveloped. It took the words of a child to convict me, yet again, that God is mindful of your needs and longings far more intimately than your mom and I could ever be. He’s got your back – and ours.

Three years ago to the day, just before your were born, I sat down as a scared soon-to-be dad to share this adventure with the world. For three years, a very large chunk of that adventure has been you, Julia. You have taught me so much about what it really means to live outside of myself, and I can’t wait to see what you are going to teach this new community that you are stepping into. I believe you have a gift and a call to help them embrace and retain their humanity, and to reflect the love that God has poured into you back toward the world.

In the end, I really do believe those words carved into the marble of that wall in Washington. You do have a rendezvous with destiny. And the community that surrounds you, your mom and I say:

Bring It.

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Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 25, 2012, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

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It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. The house has long fallen asleep as I atone for my procrastination. I had every good intention to bang out this annual greeting in the light of day; but one marvelous distraction after another intervened. Visits with family and neighbors, eating way too much, quiet meadow walks in the first snowfall of the season, gift exchanges and a late night roughhousing session with Julia has its way chipping away at the time.

So here I am, bleary eyed and typing away feverishly next to a window, cracked open to let the chill of the night air keep me awake; but also in hopes that I will hear some spooky night sound that would quicken my pulse in my younger days.

WeatherVane-01Julia has lately come into the habit of waking early, sometimes as early as 5am, and this morning was no exception. I decided to let Jocelyn sleep and took Julia downstairs to snuggle in the cool darkness of the farmhouse in the comfort of her grandfather’s easy chair.

I love the moments of quiet that visits to the farm afford. They give me time and space for contemplations that simply will not deepen and grow in the shallow soil and frenetic pace of my daily life.

But as my daughter dozed on my chest, the thoughts that came to mind were not comforting ones. In the quiet of the pre-dawn light, I finally let myself embrace a taste of the pain to which I had been consciously numbing myself.

I’ve been watching, in horror, over the last several months as this world has seemingly been tearing itself apart. I pondered the empty arms of the parents of twenty Connecticut school children who are still in the throes of their grief. And I’ve watched as our nation – the world, in fact – struggles to right itself in the midst of the shock; our politicians and pundits scrambling for air time to push the “one agenda” that will supposedly be the solution to the mess we find ourselves in.

The tragedy this year has not been limited to people outside my community. I’ve been watching over the past several weeks, sometimes helplessly, as a nearly thirty-year marriage of a couple very close to me has quite simply imploded before my eyes.

In so many domains, in so many hearts, a piece of our collective innocence has been taken from us.

And I wonder what is it about the holiday that brings this melancholia out of me. Never mind. You don’t need to know how deep that rabbit hole goes; and any of you who have been following these over the last few years will know that it ends with more hope than it starts with.

Later in the morning, I read the backstory of an old Christmas carol that a friend had passed along to me the day before. I was surprised to learn that it was adapted from a poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had written in the depths of personal despair. Having lost his wife in 1861 to a horrific and accidental fire that permanently scarred him as well, he would write that Christmas of how “inexpressibly sad are all the holidays.”

But that would not be the only sadness that Longfellow would experience. His eldest son, against Longfellow’s pleading, took a commission as a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac and sustained a grievous wound in 1863 (he would eventually recover after a long convalescence). A year later, on Christmas Day of 1864, Longfellow penned a poem that began with despair and loss, and the seeming irony of the bells that tolled for peace in war’s midst…

     I heard the bells on Christmas Day
     Their old, familiar carols play,
          and wild and sweet
          The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     And thought how, as the day had come,
     The belfries of all Christendom
          Had rolled along
          The unbroken song
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     Till ringing, singing on its way,
     The world revolved from night to day,
          A voice, a chime,
          A chant sublime
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     Then from each black, accursed mouth
     The cannon thundered in the South,
          And with the sound
          The carols drowned
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     It was as if an earthquake rent
     The hearth-stones of a continent,
          And made forlorn
          The households born
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     And in despair I bowed my head;
     “There is no peace on earth,” I said;
          “For hate is strong,
          And mocks the song
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And if Longfellow’s verse had finished there, darkness would have won. And in my moments of despair, it has been scarily easy to let myself give in and be utterly overwhelmed by the hatred, the senselessness, and the crushing grief all around.

But there is so. much. more.

In the midst of the pain, there are reminders of the beauty that will eventually overtake it.

As a whole nation and I were struck dumb by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, while some commentators repeatedly asked if God was, at best, an absentee landlord and other commentators shot back with the standard right wing theo-social talking points, a friend decided that she was going to simply be different. Here is her Facebook post less than a day after the incident:

          This is my “Do Something” in response to my visceral maternal alarm bells.
          Hurting people hurt people. So I will love people. I’m going to be a one woman
          love flash mob. I will make eye contact. I will smile. I will love on my sphere of
          influence and help them love on others. It’s not just a gun control or mental
          health issue. I think its a love issue too. A fear issue. I will not live in fear
          and turn inward. Love always beats evil. Always. It has to. Join me. Share this.
          Smile. Love. Do Something.

I’m embarrassed to tell you that all I could manage at the time was to choke out four words in response:

Bravo, my friend. Bravo.

But for me, it was an early reminder that this season reminds us of: In love for us, God came to those who wanted no part of love so that the reorientation of history and the transformation of our futures could be made possible.

The small decisions to love are not all I stand in awe of. I have friends who are pursuing a creative way toward peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Others are pulling up stakes in the comfort of the suburbs to continue their lives in the neighborhoods of Detroit. Others have decided that clean water should not be a luxury for the Pokot people in Kenya and are working tirelessly to drill wells. Some of my favorite people in the world have committed their lives to build an enclave of hope and beauty in the midst of despair in Dowlaiswaram, India.

Perhaps the reminder of Love enfleshing itself in humanity on that unlikely day in that unlikely place is the invitation of a return to the innocence that we lost. It is in these and countless more reflections of that love where the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem is made manifest:

     Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
     “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
          The Wrong shall fail,
          The Right prevail,
     With peace on the earth, good-will to men.”

Peace on earth, goodwill to all humankind. To that worthy mast, I have fastened my heart. To that improbable, inconvenient, overcoming, all-consuming truth of a here-and-now Savior (who I do such a lousy job representing), I commit my life to pursue.

And whether or not you decide to pursue with me, I think we can all agree that the world would be a better place if we decided to love first and do something out of an overflow of that love.

I give God thanks for all that you do, and wish you all the best for Christmas.

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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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Scenes From a Coffee Shop

On February 8, 2012, in Commentary, Personal, by Chris

Not long ago, I decided to take a Monday away from the office and work remotely at my favorite coffee shop in town. Time away like that is surprisingly productive – especially with the crush of distractions and interruptions that can come at the office.

As I was burning through the mountains of correspondence, a quiet exchange caught my eye. A little girl and her dad had come in and sat snuggling together in one of the comfy chairs nearby. She with her orange juice and he with his coffee, they beamed at each other and shared a muffin with a love and affection that can only be found between a father and child.

I smiled to myself as I watched, looking forward to the days I would bring my daughter Julia to this coffee shop and do much the same thing.

Not much later, a woman came in – obviously the little girl’s mom – and the scene changed. I didn’t hear all of the words of the conversation between dad and mom. But the tone was unmistakable – admittedly civil, but with the clipped exchanged of a couple that was simply trying to get through an unpleasant situation.

And then it hit me. I was witnessing a kid hand-off between divorced spouses.

The conversation ebbed and flowed in the few minutes they were together. He forgot to get a picture of the girl printed that was to be used for a craft later that day. He apologized, she cut him some slack; but as I looked at her careworn brow, it seemed she was silently adding it to the list of broken promises that had been piling up over months and years.

And the little girl, who had been happy and carefree just minutes before, was stone faced. It was a kind of stoic bravery that I see in people far older and with lives far more complicated than a four year old girl has any business having. And that expression remained as she hugged her dad and went with her mom out the door and down the street.

Please understand, dear reader, that I’m not assigning blame to anyone in that embattled little family. I don’t know their story and would never presume to armchair quarterback the situation – or any situation for that matter. I’m not assigning blame – but I have to tell you that I’m seeing that kind of pain more and more.

My chosen career has afforded me a unique vantage point on situations like this. My job is running a portfolio of initiatives at a local church that deals with the equipping and healing of relationships. Part of that is overseeing the premarital program that works with couples before they’re married to give them a few tools that will prepare them for the continuous exercise in self-denial and service that comprises a healthy marriage.

I also oversee the divorce recovery workshops. Twice a year, a team of dedicated volunteers works with scores of adults who have gone through a divorce and help them heal from the pain of it all. We also work with their children, who sustain much of the collateral damage of the broken marriage. And it’s amazing and humbling to see how a little truth applied with liberal amounts of love can redeem a broken situation.

But it’s ironic to me that if I asked those bonehead-in-love couples entering our premarital program to tell me their aspirations for their marriage, exactly zero percent of them would dream of being divorced within a few years.

It’s never the plan, but it’s sadly the case sometimes. And as I watched that little girl walk away with her mom, I asked myself and my Creator what could be done.

Then I looked down at my work and the answer came to me (from God or from my computer, I’m not sure which):

You’re already doing it.

I am part of a small band of co-conspirators who have spent a year developing a consensus and a plan for a marriage mentoring initiative. I had taken time away from the office that day to put together content for our first vision and training gathering. We’re still in the developing stages at the moment; but we’ve realized that as great as a workshop or a retreat weekend or a counseling session can be, the thing a couple often needs most are friendships that can regularly encourage them to continuously do the simple things that feed a healthy marriage…

Talk to each other
~
Fight fair
~
Laugh a lot
~
Let go of everything you think you’re owed
~
Pour everything you have in service to your spouse
~
Trust God and the identity He’s given you – and here’s how

Forty six couples showed up at our first gathering last Friday night; and the anticipation in the room was truly breathtaking.

Like I said, we’re starting small and developing as we go; but it’s my prayer that this growing conspiracy is going to be able to push back just a little bit against the fearsome cultural forces that are tearing marriages apart or making people give up on marriage altogether.

And maybe someday we’ll see fewer little girls walking away from one parent in the hand of another.

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