Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 24, 2011, in Life, Personal, by Chris

It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. Another crystal clear and cold night and we are all nestled around the fire after a day of visits with family and friends, two great meals (masterfully prepared by Jocelyn) and an evening service at St. Paul Church. My dad is starting to nod his head in fatigue as he finishes out his night’s reading, and I’m occasionally looking up with some amusement as Jocelyn discovers the joy and frustration of assembling an educational toy for our daughter. The education, apparently, is mostly for the parent and comes from just getting the product out of its packaging.

It’s been a great retreat so far from the pace and noise of the city. I’m always struck by the comparative silence that greets us when we arrive. The days here are quieter – especially in winter when most of the farm implements have been stowed for the season. But the nights are exquisitely so, the silence broken only by the occasional bay of a barking dog off in the distance. I’ll always try to talk Jocelyn into cracking open a bedroom window on the off chance that we hear the chilling cries of the coyotes that have made their way back into the township over the past few years.

I’ve come into this writing with two thoughts in my head. The first is how important it is to remember. I will forever look back on this Christmas as the holiday when I remembered how to breathe. A year ago, right around this time, we were weeks away from Julia’s open-heart surgery. If you’ve followed the story for that long, I had a countdown clock set for the minute we were to report to the surgical staff at Children’s Hospital. We were recording Julia’s food intake down to the milliliter and guarding against any possible infection for fear of its potentially devastating effect on her health. It was a major undertaking (and not a small risk) to even come out to the farm for a few days.

Now, as the ache in my back eases after standing at the back of the church holding a wiggly toddler for an hour, I am struck by how… normal… it all feels – and how long, long ago that whole ordeal seems. I get far more agitated at the fact that Julia is misbehaving in church than I can ever remember during her recovery from surgery. I guess that’s the mercy and the curse. It would be so easy to simply forget what we had gone through and the sustenance we received from God through so many. So tonight, I am going to remember – and say, “Thank you.”

I’ve also been reminded in the last week or so by how something beautiful and lasting and redeeming can come in such small packages and under the most adverse conditions. I am still amazed at God’s willingness to take us through a tomb of horrors in order to give us the “street cred” we need to speak into the lives of others and bring a level of encouragement that we couldn’t have before. Even more amazing is the posture we have when we are doing it well – not overbearing, but offered with the quiet humility of one whose self-image doesn’t rise or fall on the person taking the advice.

Jocelyn and I have had so many opportunities over the last year to encourage other families going through what we did. And it’s been awe inspiring to see their countenance change over the months from one of fear and uncertainty to the quiet knowing of a parent who has gone to the wall for their kid.

I’ve been reading the entire Bible over the last year with some friends and recently came upon a verse in an often-overlooked book of Hebrew scripture:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” ~ Micah 5:2

Some seven centuries before its realization, a promise was made that a backwater town (in the shadow of the capital of the religious establishment) was going to be the cradle of a new movement. It would start with a child born under circumstances that some would deem rustic and even scandalous, but its message of a love that was (and is) as overpowering as it is humble would silently weave its way through the ages.

Political and religious powers would try to appropriate its message for selfish gain, and would seem to succeed for a time. To their eventual frustration, though, Love has a life of its own and quietly demands to be met on its own terms: gratitude, selflessness, and service. The swords that people would take up to defend it are useless. The organizations raised to promote it will eventually crumble to dust. But Love will remain, beginning again in a willing heart that simply chooses it. And out of the smallest of packages, beauty continuously unfolds.

It is that Love we celebrate tonight. It is that Love that will not let me forget – even when the crush of life’s demands push in even harder. My prayer for you is that you bind yourself ever closer to the God of that love and let Him push back on the expectations laid before you; and for this time find the rest and comfort that Love so generously provides.

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

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Bring It + 365

On September 12, 2011, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

It was a warm Sunday afternoon a year ago that I settled into the comfortable chair in my daughter’s as yet unoccupied nursery to begin the adventure in words and pictures that you see before you.

After recounting the challenges we had seen in the months before and those in the future that seemed to be lining up against us, I began this blog with a simple, scary request of God:

Bring it.

That request was not made lightly or flippantly – but it wasn’t without more than a little trepidation. In fact, it was nearly an act of desperation as Jocelyn and I clung to the possibility that amid the cloud of Julia’s frightening diagnoses of Down Syndrome and heart defect, God was there with us. If he wasn’t, we were going to be in deep, deep weeds.

I hesitate to use such a trite metaphor, but the only way I can describe the last year is that it was a roller coaster. But I will add that it was a roller coaster after your fifth corn dog.

So where are we now? Well, the fact is that I’m writing this at the end of the day with my wife crashed beside me after the bottles have been washed and sterilized and the baby’s in bed. Julia’s had a few fitful nights (teething, we think) and we are all feeling the ache of fatigue that comes from a couple hours less sleep.

But if you’ve been following this little narrative, you’ll know that Julia got through the surgery successfully and the scar on her chest is fading even as the memories of the long days at the hospital fade a bit from our minds.

Honestly, a year after “Bring it” finds me wrestling with a lot of the same questions as before, although their shape and texture have become a touch more conventional as I settle more comfortably into being the dad of a delightful little girl with a mended heart and a tad extra on Chromosome 21. What kind of cruelty will Julia face from others because of her condition? How will she live once we are gone and she is on her own?

A lot of the time, I can push those uncomfortable questions down with a household project or the hum of activity in the office, but it came to the forefront of my mind last Sunday at church as we commemorated the somber tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Since that ugly day, our pastor observed, we as a country have become consumed with security in a very dangerous world. And it was in the middle of the message I got that horrible feeling that I’m really no different.

I am wondering if the crush of the last year has caused me to hang on just a little more tightly to my life, my family and my stuff.

There it is. It’s true that adversity can draw you close to God. But the pernicious flip side is that it can just as easily make you run in the opposite direction. Even when I’ve experienced the Life that is God, I still often find myself clinging dumbly to things that will eventually end up in a landfill, expecting them to give me life.

I hear him asking me, “You’ve trusted me with your life. Will you trust me with Julia’s?” I’m ashamed to tell you that far too often, if I were really honest, the answer would be no.

But here is where I have to go back and do the gut check. Do I still believe that God’s dream for Julia is better than anything I could ever conceive of? And if my faith says that God spoke the universe entire into being, who is more equipped to unlock the best from her (and from me, for that matter)?

Yeah, this “Bring it” thing is hard, hard work sometimes. But all I have to do is listen to the satisfied coos of my daughter and watch my wife as she sleeps beside me, exhausted from the day (“But a good tired,” she says). These are the little reminders that something deeper and more wonderful awaits those who press into life’s occassional discomfort and abandon themselves to the adventure that God has for them.

Here’s to another year.

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An Unexpected Trap

On August 7, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

It fell just a tiny bit more into place just the other day. The reality of what is before us came a little bit more into focus. It started innocently enough – I was picking up Julia from daycare. 4:30pm is the time when all of the parents converge and the room is always a bustle of activity as the day comes to a close.

One of her playmates (I’ll call her Emma) was born just a week or two after Julia. It’s so cute to see them interact the way they do – sitting on the floor and looking at each other in wonder, sharing a toy or a book under the watchful eye of Miss Carla or Miss Tia. I don’t know if Emma and Julia will be friends forever, but the daycare workers say they are “BFFs”.

I was loading Julia into her car seat and Emma’s mom came in to pick her up. “Do you want to show Mr. Chris your new trick, Emma?” she asked. It took a little encouragement, but it wasn’t long before Emma popped out of her sitting position and started crawling toward her mom. It was amazing to see and we celebrated Emma’s achievement together. It had been less than a week since she had started and it apparently came almost out of nowhere.

I looked at Julia as she sat grinning and cooing in her car seat and it hit me.

Julia’s not anywhere close to crawling.

She’s getting passed up by kids younger than her.

Her developmental delays are becoming a little more evident.

For all of her progress, Julia still has Down Syndrome and there are realities that have yet to unfold. And there is no way on God’s green earth that we are going to be able to avoid it.

Needless to say, it was a quiet ride home.

But let me pause for just a minute and tell you that I love my kid and she is an absolute delight. This tale ends well, but it takes a minute to get there. Okay – back to the story.

I can get pretty quiet when there’s something churning in my head; and I’ve had to learn to work hard to articulate it before it gets displaced into something else. The household suffers when my pensiveness and sometimes melancholia gets twisted round and expressed in my frustration with something totally unrelated.

I walked into the house with Julia; and as quickly as I could, I choked out what was bothering me. Jocelyn is very intuitive and could tell there was a something going on within minutes, so there’s no way I would have hidden it for long.

“Emma started crawling.” It came out like I was announcing that the car was going to need transmission work.

“I know,” she replied, “I saw her dad in town today and he mentioned it. I thought it was great news since kids with Down Syndrome are visual learners and it will be good for Julia to watch Emma crawling.”

“Yeah. That’s a good way of looking at it.”

One piece of news – two reactions. Glass half empty – glass half full. But what was it that got me in that funk so quickly? Granted, I can have kind of an “Eeyore” outlook sometimes. But if we set that aside for a moment, I’m afraid I got caught up in something that plagues all of us at one time or another.

Bottom line, I got caught in the comparison trap. Their kid is crawling – mine isn’t. Their kid is walking – mine isn’t. Their kid is doing long division and made the traveling team and just discovered a new planet between Uranus and Neptune… You get the picture.

I mourned a little death that afternoon; but it wasn’t a person or a relationship that passed away. It was the expectation I had unconsciously put on Julia that had no business being there in the first place.

Leadership consultant Marcus Buckingham once observed that the greatest joy and the greatest challenge in life is not wanting to be someone else. I say the greatest joy and the greatest challenge in parenting is wanting God’s dreams for your kid and leaving yours at the side of the road – no matter how redeeming you think they are.

It’s true, I celebrated with Emma’s mom at the new development; but for just a moment as I looked down at my precious little girl, I felt the twinge – okay, the stab – of my expectations coming a little more in line with reality. And the reality is that Julia will crawl one day. Just not today.

She will even walk and someday know joy and elation – and feel the sting of betrayal and disappointment that I cannot shield her from as much as I want to. In the end, though, I have to help her to live her life to its fullest potential and not expect her to live mine.

Jocelyn and I said at the outset of this adventure that we need to let God and Julia define Julia. The afternoon surprise of another kid’s milestone was, for me, just another necessary exercise of letting go and loving my little girl right where she is.

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Father

On June 19, 2011, in Commentary, Personal, by Chris

The family and I are in the middle of a much-needed and anticipated getaway to Washington D.C. to spend some time with my sister and her family. It’s always great to see them and we all have a way of moving into a wonderful rhythm together – even with the chaos of two college-age boys at home and the new twist of Julia in the mix.

It is the end of our fourth day here, and I just put my father on a plane home after a great time together. The heat of the June day has settled into every corner and crack of the house and the air is thick and heavy laden with moisture and the smells of magnolia and sweet bell pepper on the grill. Jocelyn and the family are in the kitchen being entertained by Julia’s post-nap antics, and I have a full spirit from the restful pace of my first Father’s Day.

Father. It’s a name I still accept rather gingerly – even after trying it on repeatedly since we found out about Jocelyn’s pregnancy last February. Much of that time has been managing the ebb and flow of emotion during the remediation of Julia’s heart issues (now thankfully in the rearview mirror). Father schmather – I was just trying to gut up the energy to serve my wife as we served our child. There were no deep philosophical values I was acting out of; it was pure survival mode.

With last month’s marvelous news from Julia’s cardiologist and the slow realization that I can take a step away from the survival mode I had become so accustomed to, I’m beginning to take in the stirring and humbling reality of the new adventure I am on.

Never more than now have I become more aware of the length, breadth and depth of my own selfishness. Its realization came to light when Julia and I flew solo for a few days in May while Jocelyn was away at a trade show. “Nothing to it,” I thought. “Just a normal day.” We came home from dropping Mommy off, I fed her, changed her, put her down for a nap, fed her, changed her; and as the afternoon wore on, I set her down on a blanket with a few toys while I caught up on some e-mail. Julia was fine, I was fine. Nothing to it.

It wasn’t long before I began to hear a change in her satisfied coos – even though I was trying to stay on task and be productive. The coos turned to whines. “It’s okay,” I thought, “I can bang out a couple more.” The whines became more persistent. I tried another toy on her and returned to my work; and moments later her frustration melted into a doleful wail and sobs that finally pierced my heart with the conviction that I had totally blown it. And for just a moment, I started to wonder whether Jocelyn’s leaving was such a good idea. I wondered if Julia had given up on me and was crying for her mother.

In the best way she could, with the only personal resources she had, my daughter was trying to tell me something:

I need more than food and sleep. Engage with me.

The quiet voice inside me was trying to tell me something as well:

I want to show you a new kind of productivity.

It was a moment where I realized I had to decide to let go of everything I felt I was owed so that Julia could thrive. There have been other reminders as well – believe me. I have realized that if there was friction in any other relationship in my life (short of my wife), I could either negotiate through that friction or opt out of it and pursue more “life-giving” relationships. I can do neither with Julia; and it also makes me wonder how many past friendships did I pursue with the attitude of a consumer instead of the attitude of a student and servant.

In the end, if Julia is going to know the love and care of her father, I have to set down my computer or whatever else is occupying my attention at the moment and engage. I also need discernment as to when to hang back and let her work something out on her own. Whew.

It isn’t all downside, though. In addition to my selfishness, I’m awakening to the amazing potential that lies just under the surface of my little girl’s life. I knew it subconsciously, but it didn’t come to light until yesterday’s visit with my friend Doug. He told me about his realization years ago at his first son’s birth that, as a father, he had been entrusted to raise someone’s future best friend or favorite teacher. The boy he cradled could live to someday save another’s life.

I admire my friend because he fathers his two sons with that vision in mind. Doug is a catalyst for his sons’ future greatness. He cannot make life’s choices for them, but he can engage with them and help form them into men that ask great questions of themselves. Despite the limitations that have yet to unfold with Julia’s Down Syndrome, I have realized that the same potential of friend, teacher and rescuer lies within the little girl that I love to hold in my arms and lull to sleep at the end of the day.

It is now hours later; and in the cool of the evening, this rookie father is trying to find succinct words to celebrate with the fathers before him and with the fathers yet to come. The investment is massive. The rewards, I am beginning to realize, are incalculable.

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Easter Joy

On April 30, 2011, in Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

We took some time last weekend enjoying the still-coming spring here in Michigan and puttin’ on the dawg for Easter. My dad came out from the farm and shared a marvelous brunch at a local restaurant with us and we all had a great time (I got the banana stuffed french toast!).

Our new friend, Jerry, finally got a chance to meet Julia face to face. This guy has one of the biggest hearts I’ve seen in a long time. Let me back up a little bit: The Friday before her surgery, Julia passed her pre-surgical assessment and we wanted to celebrate. Taking her out in public for dinner wasn’t an option since we were still on cootie patrol and trying to keep her safe from infection; so we opted for some upscale takeout. Jerry was the guy who took my order, and by the time he heard our story while I was picking up the food (and showed him a picture of Julia), I got a hearty handshake and a promise for drinks on him when Julia got through the surgery.

We have since kept in touch with Jerry. I took Jocelyn to the same restaurant to celebrate Valentine’s day and his affection literally bubbled over as he saw Julia’s post-surgery pictures. It still amazes me how her story continues to touch people, even months later.

Brunch was followed by a little walk around Birmingham and the unbridled glee of our little girl and her first Easter Basket. I’m pretty sure she had no idea what she had her hands on, but it was still fun to see the holiday through her eyes.

Happy Easter everybody!

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