Tuesday, February 12, 2008

February, 2008-- Lent a desert? Not with this snow

The analogy of lent as a desert has never worked for me. I was born and raised in Wisconsin, and except for a year spent in Chicago, I’ve lived here my whole life. The closest I’ve come to a desert is the Arid Dome at Mitchell Park Conservatory. February and March in Wisconsin — the lent months — are about as far as you can get from hot and dry. Lent to me has always been cold and soggy. When lent arrives in Wisconsin, winter is only half over.
            Lent is blackened snow in the streets and muddy boots in our hallway. Lent is wondering if maybe we’ll just skip spring entirely this year in favor of freezing rain until June. Lent in Wisconsin is leftover Christmas wreaths on too many houses because owners missed the one forty-degree day when they could have taken them down.
            So, with the analogy of the desert not working for my lent, I found it extremely appropriate that lent in Wisconsin was brought in by a blizzard this year. The snow that closed the city seems to me to be a fitting beginning to what our lent should be about.
            Lent, when done right, should begin by shutting everything down. This Ash Wednesday, the blizzard closed the kids’ schools and my husband’s and my workplaces. It changed our plans. It turned what would have been a typically complicated day — driving kids to school and practices, attending meetings, running errands — into a very simple one. All six of us home together, shoveling and eating vegetable soup. It can be hard to determine what in our lives is essential if we never take time to step away. Lent provides the opportunity to take a spiritual snow day. It is a time of “closing” some of the non-essentials in our lives.
            The interminable snow and ice of Wisconsin’s February can be a spiritual analogy just as surely as sand and cactuses. Theologians often talk about the “desert times” in our spirituality — times we feel alone and disconnected from God. But to me, there’s something appealing about any time that’s warm and dry. A spiritual desert doesn’t sound so bad— God may be quiet and you may be alone, but at least there’s no danger of frostbite.
            In contrast, when I struggle to see God’s presence in my life, it is usually because I’m in the middle a situation that seems impossible. It seems that if I turn one way, there’s cold wind whipping on my face. If I turn another way, there’s sleet. Four times, I have spent lent as a foster parent. The first time, we had just received 1-year-old Teenasia, and the whipping wind was the complete uncertainty of her situation. The second time, T had been with us for a year, and the sleet was giving her back to a situation in which we had no confidence. The third lent was Jamie — a lent that included a thaw and the promise of spring-- we adopted her shortly after Easter. And now, this lent, we have Teenasia back with us again, and the bitter cold of the court system feels unrelenting. I know spring will come because it has before, and I believe in summer and warmth and life without mittens. But from where I sit at the beginning of this lent, it is so hard to see the sun.
             But if the desert analogy of lent is about being alone, a winter analogy of lent has to involve people. Winter makes you want to huddle. Winter is about cozying together around a fire or cuddling on the couch, under an afghan. While it’s easy to imagine Jesus spending 40 days in the desert by himself, I doubt that if he lived in a different climate, he would have gone into the cold, snowy forest by himself for the same amount of time. Winter alone can be dangerous. Lent alone can be dangerous, too. Perhaps in no church season is the community as important as it is during lent. In looking into ourselves and seeing our own brokenness, we need to be around people who are doing the same. Jesus himself recognized that he shouldn’t be alone in his most difficult hour — and desperately asked his disciples to not leave him by falling asleep. The icy winds of lent require us to find people to huddle with. The prayer, fasting and almsgiving of lent underlines the importance of this community huddle. We pray and fast with our community, and then we give alms to those within the community who need our help.  Though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, we turn out at church in great numbers. We know we belong together on this day. We know we cannot be alone in the cold. 
            We are warmer together. We share heat. And even if together we still cannot quite see the sun, we can remind each other of the times before, when the winter ended. We can tell each other stories of the coming of spring. Together, we can await the resurrection.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

February, 2008-- Teenasia's return to Foster Care, a third time

A Return to Foster Care

            Three weeks ago Wednesday was a “sit by the phone” day.
            The day before, Bill and I had completed the licensing process for receiving a foster child in need of adoption. Wednesday was the day that our family was to be presented to the social workers in charge of placement. Our licensing worker would explain to the placement workers the type of child we thought would best fit in our family and the placement workers would look at the children in the system and match us with one of them. We had requested a girl under four with minimal physical and mental limitations. Her bed was set up in Jamie’s room.
            For the past month, after our usual dinner prayer, one person in the family would pray for the child who would be sent to us. We prayed that it would be the right child — a good fit for our family. We prayed for whatever that child had gone through that landed her in foster care would be something we could help heal. We prayed that we’d be given the wisdom, insight and patience we needed once she came. 
            As I waited for the phone to ring that Wednesday, I considered the possibilities. I wondered if the little girl would be more toddler or preschooler. I wondered what her ethnic background would be, and whether she’d be quiet and reserved or lively and outgoing. I wondered about her birth parents and whether it would be a smooth transition from foster care to adoption, like Jamie’s was, or if extenuating circumstances would drag the process out or send her back to a relative.  My mind swirled with the both the worries and the joy of foster care — the possibilities of attachment disorders and fetal alcohol syndrome; the amazing miracle of an abused, abandoned or neglected child being given a fresh start.
            As I waited for the phone to ring, I remembered waiting for past foster children. My mind went to Luchita, our first foster daughter, who was sent to live with her grandma after a month with us. I remembered when the phone rang for our second foster child  Teenasia, who came, at age 1, just a few days after Luchita left, and stayed until she was a little over 2. We didn’t feel good about the situation she was being returned to, and our hesitations proved right. Two years later, she was in our home once again as a foster child. Teenasia stayed with us just five months the second time before being returned once again to her biological father. That was almost exactly a year ago, we had not seen her since. My mind tried to close the door on T in favor of happier foster care moments. I remembered the fuzzy faxed picture of smiling toddler Jamie that we received the day before we went to meet her. My mind settled on the Jamie memory.
            I was hoping for another Jamie.
            But the phone didn’t ring. It didn’t ring, and it didn’t ring, and it didn’t ring. Our house had never had such a quiet day. Finally, at four o’clock, unable to stand it any longer, I called Anna, our licensing worker.
            “Annemarie, I’m so happy that you called,” she said. “I have amazing news for you. We were just going to place you with a child when one of the social workers looked at the computer for the display of the children who entered foster care today. Teenasia was just detained five minutes ago. The social worker remembered her name from when she was in foster care with you last year and knew that you’re licensed again. T is at Children’s Hospital now, being checked. She’s back in foster care. She needs placement tonight.”
            Teenasia needed placement tonight. Not two days ago, when we would not yet have been licensed. Not tomorrow night, when we would have been matched with another child. She needed placement tonight.
            After a day of waiting for the phone to ring, five months of working on being licensed again, so many late night talks, it was T who would be delivered to us again?
            T was the girl we had been praying for without even knowing it. My mind kept bumping into things as I struggled to understand the news. We weren’t receiving a pre-adoptive placement. It wasn’t a toddler or preschool mystery girl. It was T, who we knew, and loved. And who we had let go of twice before. The magnitude of God’s timing overwhelmed me.
            Bill came home from work, and together, we wept, then pulled ourselves together and quickly straightened up the house so the social worker might think we were a neat family. We ordered pizza so that it would be hot when T arrived. Cheese pizza-- her favorite. 
            About 30 minutes later six-year-old Teenasia was on the porch with a social worker. She bounded through the door, into our arms, then dashed off with Jamie to see the toys she remembered from last year.
            As we filled out paperwork, the social worker told Bill and me that she had waited until she was driving to our house to tell T where she was going. Despite what they’ve been through, she said, not all foster children react well to the news they’re not going back to their parents.
            “What did Teenasia say when you told her?” I asked.
            “She said that God had answered her prayer,” the social worker said. “She said she had been praying that she could stop being hurt and go to live with you again, and now it was coming true.”
            We were praying for each other, Teenasia.

            Welcome back.